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Attack ignites kippa debate

Elizabeth Bryant, Paris
January 15, 2016

France's Jewish community has been hotly debating whether boys and men should wear skullcaps in public in the wake of an anti-Semitic attack. Some say it's simply too dangerous. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

Men wearing kippas walk on a street in Paris
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Rothermel

Philippe Zribi does not wear a skullcap, but he has strong opinions about them.

"I'm a traditionalist, I'm not religious," said Zribi, whose family owns a kosher butcher's store in northeastern Paris, "but I believe people should be able to wear what they want."

"We need to terrorize the terrorists," he added, "not be terrorized by the terrorists."

Zribi's two centimes on the Jewish male headgear, which is also known as a kippa or yarmulke, are adding to a hot debate in France after a Jewish leader suggested that Jewish men and boys should stop wearing the skullcap "until better days."

There was a reason for his advice: On Monday, a radicalized Kurdish teenager stabbed a kippa-sporting school teacher in Marseille.

"As soon as we are identified as Jewish, we can be assaulted and even risk death," Zvi Ammar, who heads Marseille's Israelite Consistory, told a local newspaper.

Coming just after the one-year anniversary of January's terrorist attacks in Paris - including an assault on a kosher market - the latest aggression has intensified fears among France's half-a-million strong Jewish community of more violence to come.

Members have already been leaving the country in record numbers, with a large slice heading to Israel. The exodus is partly tied to a spike in anti-Semitic acts in recent years.

Keep the skullcap on

Even so, many top Jewish leaders are urging male faithful to remain true to their religious identity and to keep their skullcaps on.

"We should not give an inch," said France's chief rabbi Haim Korsia.

Still other Jews - reportedly including the school teacher who was attacked - are choosing a middle option of wearing their skullcaps under a baseball hat.

On Wednesday, President Francois Hollande weighed in on a debate that has captured the airwaves and headlines, calling it "intolerable" that French citizens should be upset and attacked because of their religious choices.

Posters in tribute to the victims of the attack at the Hyper Cacher supermarket
A kosher supermarket was also targeted after the attack on Charlie HebdoImage: picture-alliance/abaca/P. Audrey

"Secularity means the right of everyone to practice his or her faith peacefully and with dignity," Hollande said.

For Israel Nessim, who stood outside a small Paris synagogue one recent afternoon, wearing the skullcap is a must.

"As Jews, we have obligations towards our religion," said Nessim, who removed his bowler hat to reveal a kippa underneath. "We have to stick to our traditions."

"Even if we don't wear one, we'll always be attacked," he added. "We'll always be recognized as Jews."

Wearing a kippa is considered obligatory among Orthodox Jewish men and boys, especially when studying the Torah or entering a synagogue. Yet in interviews this week, even Jews who did not wear skullcaps championed the right to do so.

"I've never worn a kippa and I don't go to synagogue," said Tunisian-born Claude Chiche. "Some here want to take off their kippa because they're afraid. But they shouldn't do this; they shouldn't give in to fear."

Conflicting feelings

A study released last week by US-based advocacy group Human Rights First found a sharp spike in anti-Semitic acts in 2014. It also found the numbers of French Jews moving to Israel - in part, experts say, because of anti-Semitism - has doubled, to more than 7,200 from the previous year. Still, France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve cited a slight drop in anti-Semitic attacks over the first nine months of last year.

Today, many Jews are battling conflicting sentiments of "wanting to assume their religious identity, but also fearful of doing so," said sociologist Martine Cohen, of the Paris-based CNRS research institute.

A mass demonstration of people holding 'Je suis Charlie' signs
People around the world declared their solidarity with the victims of the attacks last JanuaryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"On the one hand Jews feel completely integrated in France, but they're also more vigilant against anti-Semitism," she added.

Still, Cohen thinks there has been a shift in public attitudes since last year's terrorist attacks in Paris.

"The identification people had after the January attacks - that they were Charlie, or Jewish or Muslim - was reinforced after the November attacks, because everybody felt targeted by them," she said. "I believe Jews feel that the French are behind them now; the sense of being alone is gone."

A different reaction for Muslims?

That is not the case when it comes to attacks against Muslims, says Abdallah Zekri, who heads a watchdog group against Islamophobia, run by the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

"When people attack a woman who wears a veil - not a full veil, just a headscarf - because she believes it's part of her religion, it's the same thing as when they attack a man wearing a kippa," he said. "But often the reaction is total silence."

France is not the only country where the skullcap has become a lightening rod. In neighboring Germany last year, the Central Council of Jews head Joseph Schuster similarly advised Jewish men to forgo wearing the kippa in areas with high Muslim populations where they might be targets.

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