Amid Rising Anti-Semitism, German Official Advises Jews Against Wearing Skullcaps in Public

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Some people were dismayed by a German official’s comments about wearing kippas, like at this commemoration in Parliament this year.CreditCreditHannibal Hanschke/Reuters

BERLIN — Germany’s top official responsible for efforts against anti-Semitism suggested this weekend that Jews should not wear their skullcaps everywhere in public, setting off a debate about balancing personal safety and the right to religious freedom in the country.

The recommendation by Felix Klein, a federal official, came amid growing evidence that, three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

In the interview published by the newspaper Die Welt and other outlets on Saturday, Mr. Klein said his thinking on the issue had changed. “I can’t tell Jews to wear the kippa everywhere in Germany,” he said, referring to the traditional skullcap.

The remark suggested a sobering state of affairs in Germany, analysts said.

“When a representative of the federal government officially tells the Jewish community that ‘you are not safe against anti-Jewish hate everywhere in Germany,’ then that is a pathetic display for the rule of law and political reality,” said Michel Friedman, a journalist and politician who has served as president of the European Jewish Congress.

Some rejected Mr. Klein’s comments, with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer saying, “It would not be acceptable if Jews had to hide their faith in Germany.”

He added, though, “Given the growth of anti-Semitic criminal offenses, we must be worried and vigilant.”

Mr. Klein said Sunday in a telephone interview with The New York Times, “I wanted to shake up the debate and am happy that it caused such ripples.”

And to those who may hear surrender to anti-Semitism in his remarks, he added, “I don’t see it as resignation, but the exact opposite.”

About 200,000 Jews live in Germany, where many have returned from Eastern Europe and Russia since the fall of Communism.

A government report released two weeks ago showed that while politically motivated crimes were down generally in Germany, anti-Semitic crimes were up by 20 percent.

Nearly 90 percent of the episodes — which include internet posts and physical attacks — were linked to the country’s far-right groups, which appear to be growing more radical while not increasing in number.

Last year, a Syrian teenager attacked a man wearing a skullcap in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. The victim, an Arab-Israeli man who had worn the skullcap to show what Jews face, had filmed the attack, and his video was quickly picked up by the news media.

Soon afterward, activists organized a “Berlin Wears Kippa” campaign, in which the city’s mayor, Michael Müller, compared the skullcap to a symbol of tolerance.

“Today, the kippa is a symbol of the Berlin that we would like to have,” Mr. Müller said then during a rally.

But some Jewish residents, even in cities like Berlin, have been hiding their skullcaps under baseball caps for years.

“Generally, I don’t tend to dramatize, but the situation has really gotten worse,” Josef Schuster, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said in an interview with the Sunday version of the daily newspaper Welt.

Mr. Klein’s office was created just last year, and in his brief tenure, he has been part of creating a federal system of offices to allow people to report anti-Semitic crimes.

In the interview, Mr. Klein also recommended that the police, along with judges and teachers, receive special training to deal with rising anti-Semitism.

In another interview, with the German-Jewish weekly newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine, Mr. Klein lamented that anti-Semitic comments were becoming more common in some German circles.

In the second half of the 20th century, he said, “there was anti-Semitism also; that is sadly correct, but it was more frowned upon to make anti-Semitic comments.”

While the Bavarian state interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, seemed to agree that there was a problem, he did not agree on the remedy. “I think the statements are wrong,” Mr. Herrmann told the Bayrischer Rundfunk, the state broadcaster. “Everyone can and should wear his kippa where and when he wants.”

His sentiment was echoed by the American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who said on Twitter: “The opposite is true. Wear your kippa. Wear your friend’s kippa. Borrow a kippa and wear it for our Jewish neighbors. Educate people that we are a diverse society.”

Follow Christopher F. Schuetze on Twitter: @CFSchuetze.

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