Visibility is one of the most important traits to marginalized groups because being visible and being seen shows that a group of people has established themselves in a diverse society. But what happens when a government official, designated to facilitate protection from discrimination to a group, encourages a marginalized community to hide their cultural traits? Felix Klein, Germany’s first ever anti-Semitism commissioner, has done just that by warning German Jews not to wear the Kippah, (a skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men), due to a recent rise in anti-Semitic events.
Germany has a complicated relationship with anti-Semitism. The German government explicitly takes responsibility for the egregious acts committed against Jews and other peoples determined to be inferior during the holocaust, and has dutifully established many respectful memorials. However, German social culture has not developed in quite the same way. Old anti-Semitic beliefs have been preserved and passed on to a new generation of far-right groups who now spread it even more effectively than before the rise of modern social media. Because of the increase in anti-Semitic events that this has caused, Klein has stated that he “can no longer recommend that Jews wear a kippah at every time and place in Germany,” and that his opinion on the matter “has changed following the ongoing brutalization in German society.”
This increase in anti-Semitic events is occurring not just in Germany, but in many other countries as well. While Klein’s initial statements on the matter are made with good intentions, they do not present a viable solution to the issue for the Jewish community. As a Jewish youth in America, the idea that choosing visibility can sometimes be detrimental to my safety is always present. I have conversations with old ladies at my synagogue who tell me that I’m brave for wearing my Star of David necklace in public and that they’re only comfortable wearing anything identifiably Jewish to the temple. I speak to non-Jewish friends who don’t understand why Jews still identify with the Star of David so strongly after it was hatefully used to identify us as less than human during the holocaust. While I understand these concerns, one thing about my people rings so true for me that I am obligated to strive to be visible.
The Jewish people have constantly suffered and been challenged throughout history, and yet we continue to survive. This is so true that nearly all of our holidays can be described with the humorous saying, “They tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.” Our culture has been fighting to stay alive for so long that for me to hide my identity would disregard the hard work of my ancestors to make a better life for my generation. I am who I am because of the tenacity of the lucky few of my relatives who survived the holocaust and it is my duty to continue their legacies.
Much of the Jewish community in Germany and elsewhere shares similar sentiments and Klein’s statements have received quite a lot of backlash. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell Responded to the warning on Twitter: “The opposite is true. Wear your friend’s kippah. Borrow a kippah and wear it for our Jewish neighbors. Educate people that we are a diverse society.” While Israeli president Reuven Rivlin said that the German warning shocked him deeply and that “such comments constituted a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.”
When asked about his prior comments, Klein said that he stood by his remarks, but agreed that his warning should not be interpreted as a capitulation, and encouraged all Germans to wear the kippah as a sign of support when anti-Semitic protests are expected to take place. Representatives for Jewish groups in Germany said that they supported Klein’s new encouragement but that it would have been better to put more emphasis on how to strengthen acceptance in the first place. Diedre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Berlin said that his response to the public dissatisfaction with his initial remarks showed “that he recognizes the dimension of this discussion and the importance of confirming the Jewish presence in Germany.”
This whole encounter shows that when one group is facing discrimination, the correct response is not to encourage them to hide, but to stand with them. This issue was the epitome of asking the victim to change their habits as opposed to fighting the oppressor, to taking down the perpetrator. Show your community that you will tolerate nothing less than acceptance. If we aim to create a harmonious, diverse society we must be willing to face the difficulty that each member faces on a daily basis alone with unity.