“Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” says the patient in an old joke. “Don’t do that,” advises the doctor.
In a decidedly unfunny twist on that old joke, the German government’s Commissioner on Antisemitism Felix Klein responded to the fact that Jews are being beaten up on German streets by advising German Jews not to wear kippot in public.
Discretion may be the better part of valour. In the short term, donning a baseball cap may be a personal choice for someone who merely wants to dash out to the market to pick up some vegetables. As part of a bigger picture, the idea that Jews in Germany should hide their identities – and the bleak historical resonance that act of Jewish hiding evokes in that particular nation – is a testament to something far beyond individual security. If a country – but, more importantly, that country – is not a safe place for identifiably Jewish people to go about their everyday lives, that is a society with a problem.
After the Holocaust, many Jews, including the leaders of Canadian Jewish Congress, determined that the surest path to safety, security and acceptance for Jewish people was to promote a universalist approach and advocate for a society in which all people are safe, secure and accepted. This is one reason why, throughout recent Canadian history, we have seen Jews in leadership roles in multicultural organizations and supporting policies that advance inclusive, universalist goals.
But there may be, in this approach, an unfortunate acknowledgement that asking people to take a stand in support of Jewish people in particular may be a losing bet. Consider the disparate responses in theory and practice of public opinion in recent months. After the murders in synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego, a great many voices (on social media, predominantly) declared solidarity with Jewish people. Yet almost concurrently, when Israelis were under attack by missiles and incendiary devices from Gaza, the overwhelming reaction was to condemn Israel’s responses. It is incongruous and incoherent to support Jews under threat in one place and, at the same time, side with those who would attack Jews in another location.
The bigger point is that, if a society like Germany seems prepared to accept a level of social illness that means a kippa becomes a hate target, how do Jews respond?
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin reacted passionately to events in Germany last weekend.
“We will never submit, will never lower our gaze, and will never react to antisemitism with defeatism – and we expect and demand our allies act in the same way,” he said. But Rivlin’s is the voice of a self-determined Jewish people sovereign in their own land. The reality for Jews in Germany, and in many other places, is that they face antisemitism of a sort and magnitude unseen since 1945. Whether Diaspora Jews will indeed submit, lower our gaze or react with defeatism actually remains to be seen, Rivlin’s encouraging words notwithstanding.
Rivlin is unequivocally correct, though, when he says he expects more of Israel’s allies in protecting Jewish people, rather than suggesting that we hide our identities. Ideally, as a result of this discussion, the German government will recognize the inappropriateness of the commissioner’s words. Through preventive actions, like increased security, and educational efforts, including genuinely tackling antisemitism in schools and public discourse, the government of Germany, as well as other European countries, can move in the right direction.
Equally important, especially when leaders won’t lead, citizens must. It falls to each of us – Jews and non-Jews – to build bridges of understanding across ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural lines. We need to advocate for those same inclusive values. Yes, times have changed and ideals of multiculturalism and the celebration of difference have taken a beating, but the inherent goodness of those values has not changed.
We also should strive to make intolerance and bigotry socially unacceptable again. The culture in Europe and North America has become coarsened and we are becoming inured to statements and imagery that would have been unacceptable before. Social media is partly to blame for this, but, as it seeps into broader society, we need to keep calling out words and ideas that divide, harm, vilify or seek to diminish others.
We know these “solutions” sound idealistic and perhaps a bit like bailing out the Titanic with a thimble. But we got to this stage in history through a million small incremental steps in the wrong direction. It is a constellation of small, positive steps that may be our best way back – in conjunction with people of all backgrounds who share our views.
Two things are certain. There is no magic wand that is going to right the wrongs we see in the world – and hiding our identities is no solution.