Remove religious garb? 'Kippa debate' in France sends defiant message

A Jewish leader suggested that men avoid wearing the skull cap after the stabbing of a Jewish teacher this week. Now French are again debating the boundaries of their country's sharp separation of church and state.

Jean Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Men wore a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap, as they attended a visit of French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at a synagogue after an attack in front of a Jewish school in Marseille, France, Jan. 14.

When a Jewish leader in France asked his fellow Jews to put away their kippas, or skull caps, “until better days,” he set off a firestorm that exposed both the fear of terrorism here as well as the resolve to resist it.

But the “kippa debate” has also thrust France's fierce embrace of secularism into an uncomfortable spotlight.

In a nation where religious garb is a lightning rod, typically something to be hidden rather than proudly displayed, the nation is reiterating the right to wear the religious symbol. Some have even called for non-Jews to put on a kippa in solidarity, underscoring the national desire to send a defiant message in the face of intimidation.

The debate started in Marseille after a Jewish school teacher was stabbed Monday by a teenager of Turkish-Kurdish descent, who later told police he did so in the name of the self-declared Islamic State. The attack happened just after weekend commemorations of last January's terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket that killed four Jews. 

Immediately following the stabbing, Zvi Ammar, who heads the Marseille Israelite Consistory and is the leading authority of the city's Jewish community, made the "painful recommendation" to men and boys to remove their kippas amid the insecure climate. “As soon as we are identified as Jewish, we can be assaulted and even risk death,” he said.

But Jews and non-Jews alike have roundly condemned it as the wrong message. “We should not give an inch,” said France’s chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, who instead asked soccer fans to don a head covering at the next big soccer match in Marseille on Jan. 20. Two legislators wore skullcaps to parliament on Wednesday, and a social media campaign #TousAvecUneKippa ("Everyone With a Kippa") called on the world to don a kippa this morning in solidarity.

In Marseille, Hagay Sobol, a local Jewish politician, says he agrees with the protest, to show both that Jews won’t back down and that the terrorist threat in France reaches well beyond one group.

“I can understand that people can be afraid in the [current] situation,” he says. “But I consider it a mistake to indicate publicly that we have to remove the kippa. It’s like a defeat."

France has seen an increase in Jewish emigration to Israel in recent years. While the outflow cannot be attributed solely to security concerns, it is significant for the Jewish population here, which is estimated at around 475,000, making it one of the largest in the world, after Israel and the United States. (There is no official count because French law prohibits the collection of data on the race or religion of citizens – an expression of the state’s secularism.)

The "kippa debate" has surfaced in other European countries, from Germany to Denmark, where Jewish leaders have called for discretion at various times. But in France, it has highlighted contradictory attitudes about religion and religious symbols.

Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist who studies racism and social movements at the Paris-based EHESS, says the debate sends a confusing message.

“First, that in public spaces, citizens are supposed to be just citizens…. They’re not Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, they’re just citizens and nothing should define them from anyone else,” he says.

“On the other side, there is the argument that if showing your identity in public doesn’t create problems, then people should be able to wear what they want, show certain religious symbols, etc. In France, we don’t know which type of mode of functioning we’re supposed to adopt.”

Religious symbols were banned from public school classrooms in 2004. That means no kippas for Jewish boys, crosses for Christians, or veils for Muslim girls. But the fact that the 2004 law is known colloquially as the headscarf ban shows how Muslims feel it targets them. Wearing a burqa in public was banned in 2010 in France. 

The “kippa debate” could alienate Muslims, who have confronted rising Islamophobia, says Oleg Kobtzeff, a professor of comparative politics at the American University of Paris. “I think many Muslims will feel attacked. They could feel like, 'Jews can wear their kippas but how come I can’t wear my burqa or long beard?' This is going to cause confusion and frustration.”

The kippa debate has also led to a broader critique among some over the path of secularism in France – a debate that often polarizes those outside of France more than inside. "Laïcité," or the strict separation of church and state, is often seen not as a tool for equality but as part of an anti-religious crusade.  

“The problem in France is that there’s a tendency to not be neutral in religious affairs but instead engage in a proactive discrimination of anything religious in public,” says Mr. Kobtzeff. “How do you handle that when you have religious people in France? You can’t just make this go away or have people hide inside their houses.”

Many kippa-wearing Jews, in the meantime, say they would never consider hiding their faith.

“Of course we’re not going to give in to fears because of this attack or certain comments,” says Avi Levi, the manager of a kosher restaurant in the 19th district of Paris, where many Orthodox Jews live. “We’ve been around for thousands of years [in this country], we’re not going to give up just like that.”

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