November 9-10 marked the 85th anniversary of one of the most horrific events in Jewish history, Kristallnacht, aka the Night of the Broken Glass. Considering the turbulent history of the Jewish people, that says a lot.
K should be very significant to Jews for two reasons. (1) We must never forget events such as this; and (2) based on current events a replication is very possible, and maybe soon. Before you scoff at the idea that such an event could occur in the US in the 21st century, read on.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Kristallnacht the following is a brief summary of what happened, why and the aftermath.
1. One might say that K was the “mother of all pogroms.” Pogroms were outbreaks of mass violence directed against a targeted group of people, such as Jews. They have occurred throughout history primarily in Russia, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. Often, they occurred spontaneously at the slightest provocation with the tacit approval of the rulers.
2. The primary perpetrators of K were various paramilitary elements of the Nazi Party, such as the SS, SA and Hitler youth, but many regular civilians joined in.
3. Mobs of people ransacked and smashed windows of synagogues, Jewish stores, schools, homes, and other buildings. The level of violence was astounding. Some people even used sledgehammers and other tools of destruction. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed; some 30,000 Jews were arrested and imprisoned; and some 300 synagogues were destroyed. At the time it was estimated that 91 people died, but when one takes into account post-attack deaths such as prisoner maltreatment and murders, suicides and other causes it was actually much higher. The exact number of deaths is not known definitively.
4. Law enforcement just stood by and did not interfere. The violence was preplanned and organized, although it was made to look spontaneous. In the aftermath shards of glass littered the ground, hence the name K.
5. The pretext for the violence was the assassination of a minor German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath by a 17-year-old German-born Jew living in Paris.
6. K did not occur spontaneously. The seeds were in place for years. Some historians postulate that the Nazis had been looking for an appropriate provocation to justify cracking down on the Jews, and the vom Rath assassination provided it. I subscribe to that theory. In fact, after vom Rath died of his wounds propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech in which he encouraged” demonstrations” but specified that they should appear to be spontaneous, not preplanned or organized, and if so, they would not be “hampered” by the police.
7. It is important to note that prior to the advent of the Nazi regime Jews had been living peacefully in Germany for some 500 years. They were fully integrated into all facets of German society. All that changed when the Nazis came into power in the early 1930s. At first, the changes were subtle, and most people were not alarmed. To be sure, hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to other countries, if they could get in, but many more stayed. The prevailing assumption was that the Nazi restrictive policies toward Jews would “blow over.” But, as we know, they did not. Regarding emigration, Chaim Weismann, noted statesman and Zionist leader, denoted that “the world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
8. The immediate aftermath did not go as the Nazis wanted. K was covered extensively by the foreign press, which was horrified by the level of sheer brutality and wanton violence. K had laid bare the repressive nature of Nazi policies for all the world to see. For example, The Times of London reported “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.” Unfortunately, despite its outrage the world did nothing to curtail the Nazis.
Based on current events I am concerned that a replication of a K situation may be in the offing. The seeds are in place. You may think I’m being extreme, but I am of the opinion that history says I am not.
Antisemitic attitudes have always existed. Recently, they had been relatively suppressed or at least under control, but now they have become very prevalent. One only has to read or watch the news. It is omnipresent – in the press, the schools, among the general citizenry, even in Congress. Attitudes that used to remain covert have now become overt. The Israel-Hamas War has become the trigger. It has emboldened antisemites and provided them with the “cover” to express their attitudes and wreak violence against Jews and Israel. The level of bias and hate has been just astounding.
Tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating against Israel and Jews without the foggiest idea of the facts. They are just parroting antisemitic sayings that they heard somewhere. They dismiss the actual facts of Hamas’ wanton brutality as Jewish propaganda. These demonstrations are becoming increasingly violent. Many Jews are afraid to leave their homes or their college dormitories, or to wear anything that identifies them as Jews. Jews have been routinely assaulted and insulted. Some have even been killed. I believe we are a small step away from widespread violence against Jews, perhaps even another K. All that’s needed is a spark, a provocation.
The Biden Administration has to step up and condemn antisemitic bias and actions forcefully and unconditionally. To date, it has not. Like in every other situation, its reaction has been vague, soft and ambiguous. You may say “it can’t happen here, not in 21st century America,” but history tells us it very well could. I would love to be wrong about this, but I don’t believe I am. Remember, as I said, before the Nazis took control Jews had been living in Germany peacefully and harmoniously for some 500 years. To put that in perspective, that’s twice as long as Jews have been in America. They were citizens with full rights. They were part of the social fabric of the country, and it all came crashing down in a few years. Nothing is forever. Many times in their history Jews had been welcome in a country, until they were not.
Postscript: A massive rally of Israeli and Jewish supporters is expected today in Washington, DC. Upwards of 100,000 persons are expected. I am gratified by this strong show of support.