As we commemorate Kristallnacht, the inevitable comparisons to what took place in Israel on Oct. 7 surface. This is particularly so because in recent years there is an effort by a few European Jewish communities to change the name of what happened on Nov. 9, 1938 to Pogromnacht.
The argument here was that the violence against the Jewish community of Germany that night had a number of characteristics, and the breaking of glass of synagogues and Jewish business throughout the country, as graphic as it was, was only one of several violent attacks against Jews leading up to the Holocaust. Jews were rounded up, Jews were assaulted, Jews were humiliated, and most of all Jews were murdered. There was one word that historically described such events: Pogrom.
Whichever side one takes in this debate — and there are legitimate arguments to retain the title Kristallnacht — the timing of this speaks to the current crisis in Israel and the pogrom that took place on Simchat Torah when Hamas launched a surprise attack in Israel from Gaza.
Let us understand why we commemorate Kristallnacht even when elsewhere in the calendar is the observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which recognizes and remembers the culmination of Nazi determination to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the Earth. As much as it is to articulate continuing sympathy for what the Jews of Germany went through, there was a need to recognize that the Shoah didn’t just happen: that there were stages leading up to the extermination, and Kristallnacht (or, “night of broken glass”) was one of the most significant.
Hatred starts with words — Hitler put it all down in Mein Kampf in 1925 — and then moves to different levels of discrimination and humiliation, to violence, and finally to organized genocide. Continuing to commemorate Kristallnacht, though the events of that evening pale in comparison to the totality of the Shoah, speaks to the need to address such hate early on before it reaches the point of no return.
And so, this year’s observance should not only remember the German Jews who suffered, whether murdered or taken to the camps or seeing their beloved synagogues burned to the ground. It also should take the message to heart of standing up to hate even when it has manifested itself already in an extremely barbaric way, to make sure it doesn’t even evolve into something worse.
What happened in Israel on Oct. 7 was the worst pogrom in the tragic history of pogroms against the Jewish people. The staggering numbers, over 1,400 dead, the brutality of gleeful assaults on men, women, and children and the taking of more than 240 hostages, are hard to fathom without thinking back to the Shoah and Kristallnacht. The deliberate murder of as many Jewish civilians as possible has few points of comparison other than the Holocaust. And it’s not lost on anyone that this was the deadliest attack against Jews at any time since the Holocaust ended in 1945.
But this story is far from closed: Antisemitism, ironically after Jews were slaughtered, has a new legitimacy which hasn’t existed since the 1930s and 1940s. While decent human beings focus on the level of atrocities that happened on Oct. 7, antisemites and their standby allies see a new possibility to murder Jews – and with it a belief that such actions will be rationalized, and even supported by, significant numbers of people around the world.
We see examples of the new boldness of antisemites in Dagestan, where a mob rushed a plane from Tel Aviv, searching for Jews to attack. We see it on American campuses, such as Harvard, NYU, Columbia, Cooper Union, where Jews are verbally harassed and physically assaulted and fear for their safety. And we see it in the halls of the UN where the Secretary General rationalized the deliberate murder of Israeli civilians by contextualizing it in relation to 56 years of Israeli occupation. Never mind the fact that there’s been no Israeli occupation in Gaza since 2005.
Fortunately, good people and leaders have not been silent in the face of all this. Political leaders are developing plans to stand against this surge in Jew hatred. And publics have largely recognized that Jews face new dangers.
So, this Kristallnacht commemoration, let us never forget what happened that night in Germany and what it led to. And let us recommit ourselves to remember what happened on Oct. 7 and to take action in any way to ensure that that horror won’t evolve into something even worse for the Jewish people.