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Knife Attack Ignites Debate About Jewish Skullcaps in France

  • Lisa Bryant

Two men walk in front of the synagogue in Marseille, southern France, Jan. 13, 2016. An attack on a man wearing a kippah has sparked debate on whether Jewish males should wear the skullcap in recognition of their faith.

Standing outside a small synagogue in northeastern Paris, Israel Nessim raised his bowler hat to reveal his skullcap underneath.

"We have obligations in terms of our religion, we have to wear the kippah," he said. "Even if we don't wear one, we'll always be attacked. We’ll always be recognized as Jews."

Nessim’s thoughts are adding to a growing debate among France’s half-a-million strong Jewish community, after an apparently jihadist-motivated attack Monday against a kippah-wearing school teacher in Marseille.

Following the attack by a Kurdish teenager claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group, the head of Marseille's Israelite Consistory Zvi Ammar has suggested Jewish men and boys should stop wearing the skullcap "until better days."

"As soon as we are identified as Jewish, we can be assaulted and even risk death," he added.

Coming just after the year anniversary of January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, including an assault on a kosher market, the latest aggression has intensified fears among Jews of more violence to come. Jews have been leaving the country in record numbers, with a large number heading to Israel. Rights groups also report a spike in anti-Semitic acts in recent years.

But 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.

Roger Cukierman, head of the national Jewish umbrella association CRIF, agreed, saying that removing the kippah in public amounted to a "defeatist attitude."

Conflicting attitudes

Sociologist Martine Cohen of the Paris-based CNRS research institute believes many French Jews today battle conflicting sentiments: wanting to overtly acknowledge their faith and fearing reprisals by doing so.

"Many French Jews feel completely integrated in France," she said, "even as they are more vigilant than ever against anti-Semitism."

That sentiment was echoed in interviews with Jews around Paris, including kosher butcher Philippe Zribi, who doesn't wear a skullcap.

"I’m a traditionalist but I'm not religious," Zribi said. "But I believe people should be able to wear what they want. We need to terrorize the terrorists, not be terrorized by the terrorists."

Another resident, Nicole Guedg, drew parallels to the Nazi era.

"We shouldn’t give into fear," she said. "If we start to be afraid, we’ll never get out."

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

In France, a study released last week by U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights First found a sharp spike in anti-Semitic attacks in 2014. It also found the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel has doubled to more than 7,200 from the previous year. But France’s Interior Minister cited a slight drop in anti-Semitic attacks during the first nine months of 2015.

On Tuesday, a French Jewish politician was found dead in his home outside Paris, in what reports suggest is a homicide.