The kippah, the head covering also known as a yarmulke, has become shorthand for Jewish. See a man with a skullcap and, unless he’s the pope, you’ll probably assume that he’s a Jew — and you’d probably be right. That shorthand has been used in two very different ways lately. Both have shown a disregard for the meaning of the modest head covering.
The first instance is the ruling March 14 by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg that companies can prohibit their employees from wearing religious clothing and symbols. The original cases concerned two Muslim women, one who was fired for wearing a headscarf, the other fired for refusing to take one off. The head of the Conference of European Rabbis blasted the ruling: “Europe is sending a clear message,” he said. “Its faith communities are no longer welcome.”
The ban could easily be applied to Jewish men wearing a kippah. French rightist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said if she is elected, she would ban Muslim head coverings as well as yarmulkes. Both are religious clothing, but whereas Muslim women typically cover some part of their heads as a sign of modesty, Jews tend to wear kippot as a sign that God is always present.
And yet no such religious meaning could be ascribed to the uniform of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, which included arm patches of the Israeli flag. Before each game, the players removed their caps for Israel’s national anthem, “Hativkah,” to reveal matching kippot.
The use of the kippah to telegraph “Jewish” and thus Israel was kitschy and off base. The kippah is not a symbol of Israel, a secular state where religion and nationalism share a complicated coexistence. The prime minister, who is not Orthodox, doesn’t wear a kippah, for example, unless he is involved in some religious function or at a holy place. And, notwithstanding the impressive early run of the baseball team — it was defeated in the second round of the tournament — there is nothing religious or holy about baseball.
There’s also nothing threatening about a kippah. Religious garb that covers the face, as some of the more extreme versions of Muslim dress do, or even a full head covering like a turban, worn by Sikhs and others, could possibly present a security threat. We note this only to say that the French have every right to seek to strike a delicate balance between religious liberty on the one hand and legitimate security concerns on the other. But a yarmulke covers up nothing more than an occasional bald spot.
While the kippah is not a national symbol, we can forgive the baseball team’s use of it; it was neither mean-spirited nor offensive — just a bit cheesy. But since the kippah is a religious symbol, attempts to restrict its use are offensive, unnecessary and overreaching.