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Debate rages over French Jewish leader's skullcap comments

Thomas Coex, AFP | The leader of Marseille’s Jewish community has urged followers to stop wearing the traditional skullcap "until better days".

The leader of Marseille’s Jewish community, Zvi Ammar, has sparked fierce debate in France after he urged followers on Tuesday to stop wearing the traditional skullcap in concern for their safety.


Ammar called on congregants to stop wearing the kippa a day after a Jewish teacher was wounded in a knife attack in Marseille by a 15-year-old boy claiming to act in the name of the Islamic State (IS) group.

His remarks have since sparked intense debate in the country, with leading members of the Jewish community and prominent politicians publically criticising them.

“We will not cede! We will continue to wear the kippa,” France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia said on Twitter, using the Hebrew name for the traditional skullcap.

Korsia also called on fans of football club Olymique Marseille (OM) to cover their heads at the team's next match in solidarity with the city’s Jewish community.

“During the next OM match against Montpellier [January 20], I call on all spectators to come with a head covering: a baseball hat, a cap, a wooly hat… It’s a way of saying: we’re united. And it’s solidarity and unity that we need right now, believe me,” he told regional daily La Provence.

Joel Mergui, president of the Consistory, an umbrella organisation that administers to Jewish congregations, echoed Korsia.

“Don’t touch my kippa!” he said. "He [Ammar] knows as well as I do that wearing a kippa or not [wearing one] won’t resolve the issue of terrorism.”

Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), agreed with Mergui, stating that Ammar’s entreaty was “not a good idea”.

“It translates to a defeatist attitude, to giving up,” Cukierman told AFP.

‘Renouncing the kippa would be giving in’

While the French government – in line with its secular values – said on Wednesday that it did not have a “position” on the issue, a number of politicians from both the left and right have spoken out against Ammar’s remarks.

“I was surprised, and it’s certainly not the advice I personally would have given. [Ammar]’s efforts to protect his own come from good intentions, but it’s not the message to send and certainly not the moment,” Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Socialist, told France Inter radio.

Former interior minister Brice Hortefeux, of the conservative Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) party, also disagreed with the idea of giving up the kippa.

“Renouncing [the kippa] would be giving in,” he said on France’s RTL radio. “We are a secular Republic. Everyone has the right to express his or her convictions.”

Rising anti-Semitism

Monday’s attack targeted teacher Benjamin Amsellem. The suspected assailant, an ethnic Kurd from Turkey who investigators believe became self-radicalised online, attacked Amsellem with a machete, slashing the 35-year-old on the shoulder and hand. After falling to the ground, Amsellem used his Torah to protect himself.

Amsellem's wife, Mazal, said that her husband agreed with Ammar’s position on the kippa, adding that he had already decided to stop wearing his. She said that Amsellem “encourages the community to do the same, not because he is afraid or ashamed to be Jewish, quite the contrary, but for security".

The attack followed assaults on three Jews in Marseille in October, one by a drunken assailant with a knife near a synagogue. In November, another Jewish teacher was stabbed by people shouting anti-Semitic obscenities and support for the IS group.

Anti-Semitic acts have soared in France in recent years, increasing by 84 percent during the period between January and May 2015 compared with the previous year, according to official statistics.

Marseille, a city of more than 850,000 people, has France's second-largest Jewish community with some 70,000 residents.

France's overall Jewish community is estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000 people, the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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