Banning the kippah
April 27, 2018
The Anne House employee isn’t the only person told not to wear his kippah at work.
When Barry Vingerling, a 25-year-old Dutch Jew, started working at the Anne Frank House in 2017, he might have assumed his new employers would be sensitive to his religious identity. After all, Anne Frank House commemorates a teenager who was hounded and murdered solely because she was Jewish, helping to make “never again” a reality when it comes to anti-Jewish discrimination.
Vingerling wore a kippah to his interview and got the job. Yet, when he started wearing a kippah at work, he was told that wearing a kippah might compromise the organization’s “independent” message—and ordered to remove it. Garance Reus-Deelder, the director of the Anne Frank Foundation bizarrely claimed that having an identifying Jew on staff might hamper the museum’s message opposing anti-Semitism. Anne Frank House’s educational programs “are directed at combating anti-Semitism,” Reus-Deelder asserted, and said, “We did not want that for example a yamulke would influence that message.”
After appealing the museum’s no-kippah policy, Vengerling was told to wear an Anne Frank House baseball cap instead if he wanted to cover his head in accordance with religious beliefs, which he did. After six agonizing months, the museum finally informed Vengerling he could wear a kippah openly at work.
Others are not so lucky. In much of the world, it’s difficult if not outright impossible—even illegal—to wear a kippah, or to engage in other traditional Jewish actions. Worryingly, this trend seems to be intensifying.
While Vergerling was awaiting his employers’ decision about whether his wearing a kippah would harm the museum’s “neutrality,” a similar smear was being made in Quebec’s legislative assembly. After Jewish legislator David Birnbaum wore a kippah to a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, opposition leader Jean-Francois Lisee declared he’s violating a rule against wearing “partisan” symbols in Parliament.
Throughout Quebec, there are alarming levels of hostility towards Jewish men wearing kippot. That was the finding of 2013 poll: 35 percent of responders said they’d be uncomfortable seeing a doctor wearing a kippah, and a large majority, 59 percent, would not be comfortable if their child’s daycare worker wore a kippah.
In France, it’s been illegal to wear a kippah in public schools since 2004 when the state banned visible religious symbols. While the law was widely seen as an attack on Muslim headscarves, Jewish students found themselves targets since kippahs were included in the ban.
While this law is not always enforced in schools, French authorities seem to be getting more serious about outlawing kippot and other religious symbols in public. Since the start of 2018, it’s been illegal to wear a kippah in France’s National Assembly; kippot supposedly violate the “neutral” nature of parliament, sending a not-so-subtle message is that any legislator who sports a kippah or other religious garb can’t be fully trusted.
In much of the country, wearing a kippah or other overtly Jewish signs is courting danger in an atmosphere of increasingly brazen anti-Semitic attacks in the country. “Not wearing the kippah can save lives and nothing is more important,” declared Tzvi Amar, a senior Jewish community leader in Marseille, in 2016, after a teacher wearing a kippah was attacked. “If I got out of the house with a kippah I would be asking for trouble,” explained Paris-based Jewish communal leader Eliyahu Elbaze. Instead, many French Jews cover their kippot with hats or caps when out in public.
It’s not illegal to wear a kippah in Sweden, but doing so can get you threatened, insulted, even assaulted in parts of the country. That was the finding of Patrick Riley, a non-Jewish Irish journalist who donned a kippah to take a walk in Malmo, a Swedish city that’s seen sky-high levels of anti-Semitism directed at the town’s several hundred Jews. Riley received plenty of stares and giggles but when his kippah-clad walk was repeated in 2015 by the Swedish journalist Petter Ljunggren, he was threatened, cursed at, had eggs thrown at him and was hit. He eventually fled after being surrounded by a crowd of a dozen threatening men yelling anti-Semitic insults.
A 2013 major poll showed shockingly high numbers of people who said they don’t think people should be allowed to wear kippot in Britain. 30% of Britons say nurses should not be allowed to wear kippot at work. 23% feel teachers should not be allowed to wear a kippah. 22 percent say they would oppose flight attendants being allowed to wear kippot; 13 percent of Britons would even ban accountants from wearing kippot.
72 years after the Holocaust, Germany is proud of its efforts to make German Jews feel safe. Yet in recent years, anti-Semitism has exploded, both among Muslim immigrants and among far-right neo-Nazis. That prompted Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to publicly question whether it “really made sense” in “problem neighborhoods with large Muslim populations” to don a kippah. It “might be better to choose a different head covering.” Some German Jews have followed this advice, covering up their kippahs with hats or caps whenever they leave their homes.
In 2015, an American Jewish tourist wearing a Star of David necklace made the mistake of asking a group of shaven-headed German men for directions near the Cologne train station. The group of skinheads attacked him, called him a “Jewish bastard”, and robbed him before fleeing. Before that, in 2014, an elderly Jewish man sporting a Star of David was attacked by skinheads in a Berlin park; the victim required hospital attention after being beaten up over his Jewish star.
No country seems immune to anti-Jewish sentiment. Anti-Semitic incidents reached new highs in many countries in 2017, including the United States, where 2017 saw a 57% rise in anti-Jewish incidents from the year before. In many cases, hostility to Jews coalesces around kippot and other overt Jewish religious symbols.
There are times when it can be downright dangerous to wear a kippah or other Jewish markers like a Star of David. I vividly recall my son’s shock after he and a group of friends were taunted and threatened by a group of boys while they visited a local amusement park; it seemed my son’s and his friends’ kippot attracted their harassers’ attention. Even in the midst of his outrage and fear, my son and his friends were proud to wear their kippot and to declare their Jewish identity to the world.
Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics.