Beyond Kippas

I felt more detached and out of place than inspired by the crowd of 2,500 or so people clapping and nodding their heads in response to the speeches at last week’s ‘Berlin Wears a Kippa’ rally. Perhaps it’s because I forgot to bring my kippa, but the event also dislodged memories of a similar rally against anti-Semitism I had attended in 2014. “Nie wieder Judenhass” (Never again hatred of Jews) was the slogan back then, a slogan that had disturbed me because I felt it would only perpetuate the world’s continued image of the Jewish people as a persecuted minority. “Couldn’t we rally around a more positive slogan?” I asked at the time.

Four years later the speeches sounded exactly the same and I couldn’t escape a nagging feeling that not much had changed since then. The recent incident in which two Israelis wearing kippas were attacked in Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, hardly a haven for bigots and hooligans, calls for a strong response. Jewish officials in Berlin and Germany continue to speak out against such hate crimes, but it’s not enough. Without creating opportunities for people to do something besides attending a rally, it’s unrealistic to expect much in the way of social change. Fighting anti-Semitism in isolation from other hate crimes also won’t be as effective as a broader campaign to address the extreme haters who seek opportunities to undo Germany’s growth into a robust liberal democracy.

One thing that has changed since 2014 is that Germany has a new anti-Semitism commissioner who will take office this week. One of Felix Klein’s top goals is to create a centralized database of anti-Semitic incidents. Better documentation of such hate crimes will lead to stronger response and prevention measures. Mr. Klein has also indicated that once the centralized data is available, he will design “tailor-made” solutions to combat anti-Semitism. This is good to know, but why wait to adopt such measures when there is already clear evidence that the vast majority of anti-Semitic crimes come from the far right.

A few years ago, I met with an official from Berlin’s Jüdische Gemeinde (Jewish Community of Berlin) to inquire about volunteer opportunities to address anti-Semitism. We had a polite conversation and then I never heard from him again, nor would he return my post-meeting messages. This was not my first experience with an unresponsive Jewish officialdom in Germany. My family got involved instead with volunteering to help refugees in Berlin. It’s now time to revisit the question “What can I do?”

I’ve been inspired by a number of community and interfaith initiatives in Berlin to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue and cross-cultural awareness and understanding. The 2013 Jew in the Box exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin, Germany’s Rent-a-Jew service, and the Happy Hippie Jew Bus (which recently came to visit my students at the institute where I teach) are effective ways to fight anti-Semitism. Berlin is full of creative people who are indeed doing something.

Wearing a kippa to support the fight against anti-Semitism is an important symbolic measure, a starting point for more sustained community action. Berlin’s creative metropolis can become a model where top-down and bottom up initiatives combine to foster an environment where Jewish leaders need not warn the Jewish community against wearing a kippa when walking around the city.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout is a writer and university instructor based in Berlin, Germany. Her book, A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany was published by Berlinica in December 2018.
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