Berlin – Germany’s “anti-Semitism czar” Felix Klein created an international stir after stating on May 25 that Jews would be ill-advised to wear a kipah “everywhere and all the time” in Germany. Reactions from Jewish world and German leaders ranged from disappointment to outrage over what seemed to be an admission of Germany’s failure to combat anti-Semitism in the European country most historically stained by this hatred.
In an email interview a day following the announcement, Klein clarified that his kipah-advisory “should rather be understood as a call to action.”
“I made this statement in order to trigger a discussion in the German public about the security of the Jewish community,” he said. “It is my aim that German society understands the fight against anti-Semitism as a common effort. The first step is to raise general awareness of the problem.”
His statements have indeed triggered a debate, as well as calls for defying the recommendation. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, also a staunch Jewish civil-rights activist, called on his Twitter followers to “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.”
Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Berlin, sent out his own advisory in response to Klein’s. “If we spread the message that people better not wear kippahs, we leave the field open to the opponents of democracy,” Teichtal stated to the Berlin Chabad community’s email list. “It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that all people can exercise their religion freely and in their own way. Hiding our identity is not an option.”
Germany’s refusal to ban Hezbollah
Klein’s statement has also triggered criticism over Germany’s handling of anti-Semitism and seeming hypocrisy, particularly over the federal government’s refusal to ban Hezbollah completely and to allow the annual Iran-backed Al Quds anti-Israel demonstration to go on, including in Berlin on June 1.
In the weekly, publicly funded Jewish newspaper, Juedische Allgemeine, Dr. Joseph Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called for Germany to follow the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada and the Arab league in banning the entirety of Hezbollah (and not just its military wing). “Hezbollah is heavily financed by Iran,” stated Schuster. “A continuation of the distinction between their individual wings would be negligent and should therefore be corrected as soon as possible.”
In a press release recommending a 12-point plan to combat anti-Semitism, which includes banning Hezbollah and rejecting anti-Israel resolutions in international forums, the American Jewish Committee in Berlin acknowledged truth in Klein’s words.
“Jews cannot move safely everywhere in Germany if they are recognizable by a kipah, speak Hebrew or wear other Jewish symbols,” said AJC Berlin’s executive director Diedre Berger. “Sometimes, the mere presumption is enough to become a victim of an anti-Semitic attack. We, too, have been experiencing this oppressive sense of insecurity for a long time. But this situation is completely unacceptable, especially in Germany.”
Klein, who grew up Protestant, came into his position, officially titled “Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism,” in 2018 after a reported spike in anti-Semitism, which also prompted Schuster in 2017 to issue a kipah-advisory. Klein said he changed his previous position on the issue.
“I came to this opinion after the presentation of the official figures regarding the big increase of anti-Semitic crimes in 2018, including attacks against persons wearing kipot in public,” said Klein. “If we join forces in civil society and in government, I am optimistic that we can successfully fight anti-Semitism and effectively protect the Jewish community.”
In a recent survey, 90 percent of reported anti-Semitic expressions were attributed to the “right wing,” although many cases were actually motivated by Islamic anti-Semitism and categorized as “right-wing” by default. The danger of kipah-wearing made headlines last year, when an Arab-Israeli posed as a Jew on the Berlin streets to test anti-Semitism attitudes and was attacked with a belt by a Syrian refugee. Kipahsolidarity rallies in Berlin ensued.
The federal German government has already implemented one of AJC’s recommendations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which states that denial of Israel’s right to exist is a modern-day form of anti-Semitism. However, it has yet to become standard in government, security, judicial and educational bodies.
“We have to increase the knowledge regarding anti-Semitism in the police forces, prosecuting offices, courts as well as in the training of teachers,” said Klein. “Furthermore, the existing laws should be applied more rigorously. For instance, there is a rule in our penal law that allows greater punishment if a perpetrator commits a physical attack out of political hate motivations. The application of this rule is still too little. Apart from this, we have to increase our prevention work. This includes political education, knowledge about Judaism as an integral part of German culture and a modern remembrance culture.”
Klein addressed the matter of Hezbollah in a forthcoming Jerusalem Post interview.
“Personally, I think it’s very difficult to define the difference between a political and military wing of an organization,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “Germany is not alone in the world; there is a European discussion about that. It would be better to have a common European position regarding that matter. I know the discussion is not finished.”
Klein’s position is a nonpartisan one; he can make recommendations and leverage the government to implement them.
“We are about to set up a new commission for the fight against anti-Semitism between Bund [federal government] and Länder [federal states] on June 6,” he stated, “where we will push forward these issues.”