Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, author and award winning journalist

Kristallnacht and other break-the-glass moments

After yesterday’s firing of Jeff Sessions, Senator Richard Blumenthal tweeted:
This is a break the glass moment. Replacing the Attorney General with a non-Senate-confirmed political staffer is highly irregular & unacceptable. Protecting the Special Counsel investigation is more urgent than ever.
A “break the glass moment” evokes the pulling of a fire alarm, and for Jews it also conjures up the final act of a wedding ceremony. Neither act — pulling an alarm or getting married — should be undertaken rashly. Once broken, that glass is shattered forever. Once the act is done, it cannot be undone. It is a step that must be taken with the utmost of gravity.
Eighty years ago, on November 9, 1938, the world faced a similar break-the-glass moment, but the only ones breaking glass were the Nazis. Kristallnacht means literally, the Night of Broken Glass. Historian Alan E. Steinweis wrote:
The Kristallnacht was a monumental development in Nazi anti-Jewish policy for several reasons. It was the single instance of large-scale public and organized physical violence against Jews in Germany before the Second World War. It unfolded in the open, in hundreds of German communities, even those with very few Jewish residents, and took place partly in broad daylight. It inaugurated the definitive phase of so-called Aryanisation: the coerced expropriation of German-Jewish property… [It was] the culmination of a brutal trajectory.
Despite this massive pogrom, the world stood by and the German people acquiesced. (See this site for more background). Paris, London, and Washington, DC, condemned the riots, but took little action. Most ordinary Germans backed the pogrom or were indifferent, but at that time there was some genuine shock at the sheer brutality, along with some public condemnations (to the extent that such things were possible in Hitler’s Germany). But by that point, the people were powerless to mount significant resistance.
Three decades ago, on the 50th anniversary of the event, The New York Times surveyed historians on the significance of Kristallnacht in relation to the Holocaust as a whole. The article noted that, while many Americans voiced shock at the terrible events of November 9, not long afterward, when Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York proposed to stretch immigration quotas so that about 10,000 Jewish children could escape Nazi violence and come to the United States, the effort was defeated in a congressional committee.
Ultimately, all that happened in response to this deadly pogrom was that America recalled its ambassador, and even that only after hesitating for four days. That was the strongest international gesture, despite all the front-page headlines. As evil as the Nazis designs were — and as deadly as they would turn out to be – this was the first major act of physical violence directed toward the Jewish population, and the worldwide alarm was not sounded.
The only ones who broke glass during that break-the-glass moment were the Nazis themselves.
Last week’s Pittsburgh Pogrom was a break-the-glass moment. These days, you don’t need a lynch mob to murder a bunch of people. When you have an automatic weapon, you can have an instant riot all by yourself. But make no mistake about it, it was a hate-inspired pogrom.
The majority of voting Americans intuited that and registered a resounding repudiation of hate on Election Day. But very few broke glass. The Pittsburgh Pogrom was a true act of American Carnage, it was our Kristallnacht, yet still so many shrugged off the continued incitement at the highest reaches of our government.
A just-released survey shows that 72 percent of US Jewish voters think President Trump’s comments and policies “were either “very” or “somewhat” responsible for inspiring the attack by emboldening anti-Semites.” Yet David Suissa of the L.A Jewish Journal claimed, “We can appreciate the president’s support for Israel AND ALSO speak out against his incendiary and divisive rhetoric. One doesn’t preclude the other.”
This is not the place to argue the merits of recent American moves regarding Israel. Yes, even I can see the positives of some of them. I also think the hate speech of someone like Louis Farrakhan needs to be called out; this is a bipartisan emergency – though these days primarily fueled these days by White Supremacists and their enablers. A break-the-glass moment does not call for a measured response. There are times for equivocation; this is not one of them. There are two sides to almost everything, until the moment comes when you either break the glass – or you don’t. Under the Huppah, you can’t be half hitched. When synagogues are burning, you can’t pull the alarm halfway.
Just before the High Holidays, I advised rabbis that “to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room would amount to spiritual malpractice.” When hatred is being stoked, freedom of the press is being subverted and the rule of law undermined, it would be moral malpractice – and outright cowardice – for spiritual leaders, thought leaders and political leaders not to break glass. This is the moment for Republican and Democratic lawmakers to take a stand together. The election is over – Americans can come together on this for the common good.
This is also the moment for all Jews to come together. We learned a hard lesson about glass breaking exactly eight decades ago. This is an epochal, five alarm moment. We pray that our civilization will bend, but not break. The damage of a shattered synagogue lies before us. It’s time to break the glass.
About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of forthcoming book, Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books)
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