BERLIN, Germany — non-Jewish Germans joined with Jews wearing kippas at several protests across Germany on Wednesday in a sign of solidarity after a spate of shocking anti-Semitic incidents, raising pointed questions about Berlin’s ability to protect its burgeoning Jewish community seven decades after the Holocaust.
One day after the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, warned against wearing religious symbols on city streets for fear of attack, some 150 protesters came to a rally in the eastern German city of Erfurt and hundreds more were expected later in the day in Berlin, Cologne and Potsdam.
“We must never allow anti-Semitism to become commonplace in Germany again,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the daily Tagesspiegel ahead of a “Berlin Wears Kippa” event where Jews and non-Jews will wear the traditional skullcap in a shared show of defiance.
Every attack on Jewish life “is an attack on us all,” Maas added.
More than 2,000 people — Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists — put on kippas in a show of solidarity in Berlin.
The yarmulkes were of all varieties — silky and knitted, leathery, embroidered and patterned. Holding them so the wind wouldn’t blow them away, both men and women cheered when Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller told them, “Today, we all wear kippa. Today, Berlin is wearing kippa.”
Jewish community leaders said it was the biggest such display in public since before World War II.
Elard Zuehlke, a 26-year-old non-Jewish Berliner, said he came to the rally in front of the city’s synagogue on Fasanenstrasse because “it cannot be that in Germany there is any kind of anti-Semitism — not in schools, not in public, not at work, not in politics, nowhere.”
“This cannot be happening. Germany has to live up to its special responsibility,” he said.
Reinhard Borgmann, a 65-year-old Jew who lost several great-uncles in the Holocaust and whose mother only survived because she hid from the Nazis, said he was pleased that dozens of organizations had turned out to support the demonstration.
“As Jews, we want to be able to move freely, whether with kippa or without,” Borgmann said. “We want to be able to practice religion in peace and not be discriminated against and not live in fear. And this event tonight is a sign and an important one.”
One small Berlin rally was called off by its three members when angry counter-protesters shouted “terrorists”, spat at participants and snatched away an Israeli flag, organizers said.
Police said the tiny demonstration in Neukoelln district, the heart of the capital’s Muslim community, ended early after the trio were shouted down by “loud and emotional” opponents and feared for their safety.
The rally was cancelled after just 15 minutes, said Levi Salomon of the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Anti-Semitism in an emailed statement that included video footage of a young man snatching an Israeli flag and running off, and of another spitting at a demonstrator.
Germany, which has been rocked by a series of ugly anti-Semitic incidents, on Wednesday saw a series of rallies with hundreds of marchers in various cities to show solidarity with Jews.
The rallies come a week after a 19-year-old Syrian refugee attacked two young men wearing kippas in a trendy district of the capital, shouting “yahudi” — Jew in Arabic — and lashing out at his victim with a belt.
A video of the assault, filmed by one of the Israeli victims, went viral on social media and sparked widespread revulsion.
The issue of anti-Semitism is particularly fraught in Germany, which has gone to great lengths to atone for its Nazi past and whose political class takes deep pride in the growth of the now 200,000-strong Jewish community.
However, a number of high-profile incidents in recent months have stoked fears of a possible resurgence of anti-Semitism from both the far-right and a large influx of predominantly Muslim asylum-seekers since 2015.
Attack on ‘remembrance culture’
In March, the Central Council of Jews urged schools to keep track of religious bullying following reports that a young Jewish girl was harassed by Muslim fellow pupils at a Berlin primary school and allegedly received death threats after she said she didn’t believe in Allah.
Earlier this month, two rappers raised hackles when they won a music prize after selling more than 200,000 copies of their album which features a lyric boasting that their bodies are “more defined than Auschwitz prisoners.” The prize was later canceled.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which captured nearly 13 percent of the vote in September’s general election, has also not shied away from questioning Germany’s cherished “remembrance culture.”
Party member Bjoern Hoecke last year called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” and said Germany should take a “180-degree” turn away from its guilt over World War II crimes.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday denounced the emergence of “another form of anti-Semitism” beyond that of right-wing extremist groups, from Muslim refugees, in an interview with Israeli television.
She reaffirmed that the security of Jews and of the State of Israel was a central concern for Germany because of its “eternal responsibility” for the Holocaust in which the Nazis murdered six million European Jews.
However, Schuster of the Central Council appeared to question that assurance Tuesday with a stark warning that Jews who wear the kippa or the Star of David could be courting danger on German streets.
‘Fulfillment of anti-Semites’ vision
The remarks sparked outrage, with the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center accusing German authorities of failing to take effective action against violent hate crimes.
“When the respected head of German Jewry feels it necessary to urge Jews to hide their identities in public, it is clear that German authorities have failed to protect the rights of their Jewish citizens and are failing to counter growing anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based association said.
The head of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, criticized Schuster, saying he was “mistaken in the cure for the serious problem.”
“Not wearing a skullcap due to fear of anti-Semitism is in fact the fulfillment of the vision of anti-Semites in Europe,” he said.
The International Auschwitz Committee, founded by survivors of the Nazi death camp, welcomed Wednesday’s kippa demonstrations but said they must be part of a broader effort by German officials, teachers and average citizens.
“That would make this day an important first step — a break with the past,” its vice president Christoph Heubner said.