Remembering the lessons of Kristallnacht

As we commemorate Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in Germany in 1938, it is instructive to ask what that terrible night all those years ago says to us in 2020.

At the top of the list is the understanding that the Holocaust did not suddenly happen. It was the product of centuries of antisemitism inculcated in publics in Europe, heightened dramatically by the Nazi takeover of Germany and the implementation of anti-Jewish laws. We observe Yom HaShoah to remember the disaster that was the Holocaust. We remember Kristallnacht as a reminder that there was a process leading to the murder of the six million.

And for us today, the lesson is to step up against hate early on so that it never gets to the terrible point of genocide. Hate starts with words and hateful teachings and, if not dealt with in a serious way, it can lead to discrimination, violence and eventually mass murder.

Beyond that is the specific element of Kristallnacht, the destruction of hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany. A line was crossed here where that which was most sacred to a community was deliberately targeted for violence.

This phenomenon speaks to the complete destruction of values and a clear statement that nothing is sacred.

Unfortunately, in today’s world where extremism on all sides is rampant, one manifestation of this is the deliberate attack on houses of worship or on those engaged in prayer in such houses of worship.

All one has to do is read off a list of locations of houses of worship that have been places of attacks to recognize this is a poisonous phenomenon and a legacy of that night in Germany so many years ago.

PittsburghPowayChristchurch. Nice. Sri LankaCharlestonHalleSinai. Oak CreekHar Nof. Mercaz Harav. Some of these cases were examples of direct assaults on religious institutions themselves like Kristallnacht, while others were assaults on individuals within the religious structures, but both share in common the theme of the complete absence of respect for the most essential religious beliefs. Too often synagogues, churches and mosques, places of comfort and serenity, have been converted into some of the most dangerous places on earth.

Like so many manifestations of hate, these assaults on sacred spots are not limited to any one political ideology. We saw in Pittsburgh, Poway, New Zealand, Charleston and Halle, white supremacists carrying out violence against those they blame for all of society’s ills, whether they be Jews, Muslims or gays.

We saw in Nice, Sri Lanka, and Egypt the violence of Islamist extremists blaming Christians for all kinds of imagined evils.

And we have seen Islamic extremists attack Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem, the synagogue in Har Nof and the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.

Once the madness of attacks on religious institutions is set loose, no religion is safe and no ideology is immune to attacks coming from within their own way of thinking.

History teaches us this lesson, not only with the memory of Kristallnacht on the extreme right, but the sordid history of communist destruction of churches in societies controlled by the Soviets.

And Jews have not been immune from this disease as we have seen in recent years vandalism of churches and mosques in Israel by extreme rightists.

One of the most grotesque manifestations of this trend is the assaults by competing Islamic groups against mosques of other groups. We particularly see this phenomenon in Pakistan where Sunni extremists target minority Shia mosques. Here too this manifestation is not limited to one or the other side of the divide within Islam.

As we commemorate that horrendous night in Germany 82 years ago, this would be a good time for religious leaders and other influentials to commit to a renewed respect for those of different religious beliefs and to make clear that houses of worship must remain a safe space even when there are conflicts between groups.

This can serve two purposes: strengthening a sense of respect for religious difference and beginning to open up conversations beyond religion for greater civility in society at large where extremists have too often dominated the arena.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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