After A Rabbi Is Attacked, Berlin Jews Ask If It's Safe To Wear A Kippa

Traditional Jewish males wear a kippa at all times
Traditional Jewish males wear a kippa at all times
Freia Peters with Henryk M. Broder, Regina Köhler, Gudrun Mallwitz and Steffen Pletl

BERLIN - Six years ago, shortly after Daniel Alter became one of the first Jews to be made a rabbi in Germany after the Holocaust, he said that he thought for a long time about how to explain to his daughter why there were relatively few Jews in Germany. He told Die Welt: "To tell you honestly, I don’t know how to tell her."

Six years ago his daughter was a baby. Last Tuesday evening in the Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg, she was with her kippa-wearing father when four youths – presumed to be of Arab origin -- asked him: "Are you a Jew?" and then insulted and physically assaulted him when he said yes.

Then, one of the attackers turned to Alter’s daughter, now seven years old: "I’m going to kill you!" Alter suffered a broken cheekbone and had to be operated last Thursday.

Alter told Die Welt that the incident would not change his commitment to interreligious dialogue. "My foundations are not shaken," he said. "Many people have contacted me to commiserate, wish me a swift recovery and say that they condemn what happened to me."

Alter said that he had been verbally molested frequently before Tuesday’s incident but hadn’t wanted to admit to himself just how aggressive these incidents were.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned the attack as a "brutal act of racism." In Jerusalem, a spokesperson said that Israel hoped that German authorities would bring the attackers to justice.

One result of the attack is that the police have increased protection of Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, a rabbinic seminary. Students have been advised not to wear a kippa in the street, rector Walter Homolka told Die Welt. "Until now I’ve been under the illusion that it should be possible wherever and whenever, anywhere in Berlin, to show that one adheres to the Jewish faith."

During his sermon on Saturday, Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg referred to Homolka's warning. "That is not good advice," he told his congregants in Berlin. He said he advises men to decide whether or not they wish to wear a kippa, and if so whether they want to do so openly or remain “invisible.”

As regards wearing the kippa, "the Talmud says one should avoid dangerous places… But Berlin is not a dangerous place. We’re not afraid and we will not stop covering our heads. Shabbat Shalom! A peaceful Sabbath!"

A kippa "flash mob"

Saturday afternoon, on the corner of Kurfürstendamm Avenue and Fasanen Street in Berlin: Sarah Nurit, 35, who works in a day-care center and is single mom to three boys ("all circumsized!"), has called for a kippa flash mob on Facebook. She boasted that: "160 signed up. I’ll be happy if even only 40 show up."

At 2 p.m. Sarah gives the signal: "We’ll start now. I wish you a peaceful Sabbath!" And some 100 Berliners, Jews and non-Jews alike, set off on a walk through downtown, accompanied by a handful of policemen and about a dozen journalists. German jazz musician Max Doehlemann wears an oversize white kippa. David, a young Berliner, has dressed his bulldog Chico in an Israeli army shirt. And Rabbi Tuvia Ben-Chorin, who heads a reform Jewish community in Berlin, is using the occasion to tell jokes.

A previous incident in 2010 in Hannover -- when Muslim children threw gravel at an Israeli dance group performing during a street festival -- made national headlines in Germany. Where does this hatred come from? Islam experts point to satellite TV, which increasingly makes it possible for Arab programs to be viewed in Europe.

Muslim youths, sitting in their living rooms in Germany, can watch programs like the Iranian series that is set in the Gaza strip and shows Israel trafficking in the organs of Palestinian children. "You Jew" has now become a standard insult in German schoolyards.

Daniel Alter used to hope that his ordination was a symbol of the normalization of Jewish life in Germany. Yet he often encountered awkwardness instead, and recalls when some people asked if he were a Jew "many would sort of whisper the word ‘Jew’ as if it were some sort of four-letter term.”

Alter got part of his education in Jerusalem where he says he was "surrounded by people who were like me.” He says that because back in Germany he was often stared at for wearing a kippa, he took to wearing a cap or hat over it. He later stopped doing that. And no, in fact, he was not wearing anything over the kippa when he was assaulted.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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