Tensions rose in Germany last week when Josef Schuster, elected leader of the country’s Jewish community advised that people visiting big cities should not wear kippot in public. It prompted a sharp response in the UK from the interfaith activist Rabbi Herschel Gluck, who declared Schuster a “moron”, cited his own longstanding practice of dressing visibly as a Jew and compared Schuster’s outlook with the absurdity of black people being expected to bleach their skin.
As a rabbi who has served a Jewish community in Berlin, frequented Stamford Hill as a rabbi in North-East London and is now with an inner-city synagogue in Liverpool, I have spent many years in interfaith activism, wear my own djellaba to Sufi gatherings and wear a kippah to every event and on every street where it is sensible to do so.
Despite having grown up in Broughton Park, an area Jewishly identical to Rabbi Gluck’s Stamford Hill home, I could not disagree more with his out-of-hand rejection of Schuster’s advice.
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I started my rabbinic career as rabbi of the Orthodox Judische-Gemeinde Adass Jisroel on Tucholskystrasse. Wearing a large black velvet kippah attracted some frightened stares and a few looks of trepidation, but that did not move me. However, one day an elderly gentleman beheld my kippah-bedecked appearance, visibly blanched and started to shake. Triggering fear and frightening the locals was not my aim.
From then on, I wore a cap or ordinary trilby on the streets and religious headdress only when on ceremonial duty. While in Berlin, I remember the violent attack on a Chasidic Jew, who was left battered and bruised in the centre of West Berlin near the Joachimstallerstrasse synagogue. He was beaten up by neo-Nazis, who occasionally stalked the streets looking for an excuse to vent their racist anger.
Two decades on and waves of antisemitic aggression now sweep in from the hard-left, the extreme-right and from radicalised groups of Arab and Muslim youth and those who choose to act on their behalf. It is sad to live in a Europe which the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has declared he is ashamed of; a Europe which he says he no longer recognises as the one he has lived in and loved.
Living in a Jewish community with a large population, such as the Broughton Park in which I grew up, gives one the false sense of security that the same hat and suit, or any other distinctive clothing marking out religious status or affiliation will be just as welcome everywhere else. It should be, but it is not. It is a matter of time, culture and education for acceptance to filter through. Sometimes it will never filter through.
The French government has legislated against the wearing of markings of religion in any public building. On a recent visit to Tunisia, I had to be gently reminded to tuck in my tzitzit and not wear my kippah outside the Jewish quarter in Djerba and outside the confines of the synagogue in Tunis. It would not have been illegal for me to flout this concern and, arguably, even emboldening for me to feel “every inch the Jew”.
However, were I to do this, I would be disregarding the concerns of the locals who would carry on living permanently in the place I paid a fly-through visit. For the locals, even in Tunis, a liberal Arab capital where it is not illegal to serve ham and alcohol on restaurant menus, it is wise not to give any excuse to potential miscreants to perpetrate violent attacks.
I am certainly not arguing that Jews should all disappear under a disguise. Dedicated antisemites know who we are and, unfortunately, nothing will prevent anti-Zionists from taking out their passionate dislike for Israeli government policies on Jews who live abroad.
Here it has taken many months for Labour politicians to finally show understanding of the antisemitism we face as a community; Shadow Cabinet Minister Andrew Gwynne confirmed in an interview on Sunday that verbal attacks on Israelis are just as antisemitic as attacks on British Jews. This will not wish away the continuing reality of BDS and anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli activism.
Last year in Berlin alone, there were almost 950 antisemitic incidents of which 18 were physical attacks. While it is heart-warming to see the outpouring of demonstrations insisting on the Jewish right to wear kippot in public, we must be careful to evaluate the words of our community leaders and political and security analysts. Condemning the words of such leadership as moronic ignores the predicament of living as a minority in an increasingly hostile environment and takes unnecessary risks with security, which from a religious viewpoint is as halachically inadmissible as it is an affront to common sense.
Captain Abel is rabbi of Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool and chaplain to HM Army Cadet Force on Merseyside