Walking through the streets of Amsterdam last week, I found myself confronting a disagreeable dilemma.
It is a predicament that every religious Jewish male traveler to Europe now faces at one time or another, and it touches on weighty matters of history, identity and faith.
Simply put, the question is this: is it safe to wear a yarmulke on the Continent? The very fact that uncertainty exists surrounding this issue barely 70 years after the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau were shut down speaks volumes about the current state of European liberalism and civilization.
And that is what makes this question relevant not only to traditional Jews, but to anyone who cares about the future of the West.
After all, today’s Europe is supposed to be different.
Indeed, on its website, the European Union describes its “core values” as “Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
But how many of those values can truly be said to exist in Europe when the simple act of identifying Jewishly in public raises serious concerns about personal safety? Both prior to and during my trip to Holland, virtually everyone I consulted offered me the same advice: don’t do it.
Perhaps, they told me, it might not be problematic to don a yarmulke in the Jewish neighborhood in the southern part of the city known as Amsterdam Zuid, but anywhere beyond that was simply too dangerous.
“You could get harassed or worse,” a Dutch non-Jew told me. “Wear a baseball cap,” a former Dutch Jew living in Israel said.
On my first day in Amsterdam, when I woke up and looked out the window, I saw a large, grey, nondescript building across the street from my hotel. There were no identifying marks, nothing to indicate what function it served. But then I noticed a group of children outside in a small playground under the watchful eyes of a heavily- armed policeman. Immediately, I knew that this must be the Jewish school, for what other kind of educational institution would have to conceal its affiliation? In this respect, Holland is of course far from alone. With a yarmulke perched atop my head, I have felt the hateful glares, and seen the sinister staring, from Spain and France in the west to Poland and Lithuania in the east.
And the growing number of threats and anti-Semitic incidents in recent years across continental Europe have highlighted the mounting insecurity that many Jews feel in a variety of countries.
In just the past week, synagogues in Sweden and Belgium were advised to shut down as a precautionary measure in light of concerns over possible terrorist attacks.
Earlier this year, the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a revealing study regarding Italian Jews, which found that 63 percent of them perceive anti-Semitism to be a “fairly big” or “very big” problem.
More than two-thirds said that anti-Semitism has gotten worse over the past five years and “one-third of respondents said that they had at least one experience of anti-Semitic harassment in the past 12 months (e.g. they had received anti-Semitic comments in person or online, received offensive calls, messages or letters or were followed or waited for in a threatening way),” the report noted. It also revealed that an astonishing 55% of Italian Jews had avoided displaying Jewish symbols in public, with nearly a quarter doing so “frequently” or “all the time.”
Two years ago, in November 2013, the EU’s own Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as FRA, published a comprehensive survey entitled, “Jewish people’s experience of discrimination and hate crimes in European Union member states.” It found that twothirds of Jewish respondents from across Europe said that anti-Semitism is a problem on the continent, and three-quarters believe it has worsened over the past five years.
“Close to one quarter (23%) of the respondents said that they at least occasionally avoid visiting Jewish events or sites because they would not feel safe there, or on the way there, as a Jew,” the study concluded.
If the Yarmulke Test – the ability to wear a head-covering without feeling intimidated or threatened – is any indication, then Europe is heading down a dangerous road, one that is paved with intolerance, hatred and bigotry.
Jews living in Europe or visiting the area should not have to hide who they are, or worry about the implications of wearing a yarmulke.
For centuries, the yarmulke has served as a symbol of Jewish pride and identity, a way of declaring that one belongs to the people of Israel and fears God.
While halachic authorities have differed in the past as to whether wearing a yarmulke constitutes a measure of piety (Midat Hasidut) or a full-blown religious obligation, it has become a widely accepted custom for Jews everywhere to do so.
Intractable as I am, I insist on wearing it wherever I go, if only because I refuse to be cowed into disguising who or what I am.
But Europeans need to start asking themselves some tough questions, such as what kind of place is Europe becoming if a yarmulke jeopardizes the person wearing it. The prejudice might start by targeting the Jews, but it rarely ends there.
And as for European Jewry, it is time to consider whether a continent so inhospitable to Jews and Judaism is truly a place they can call home.
Europe’s failing grade on the Yarmulke Test indicates it is not.