Grieving for Kristallnacht, past and present

Another anniversary of Kristallnacht has come and gone. And for me, as a Jew, what is there to do but grieve?

Part of what I feel records what happened on that long night in 1938 when Nazi hooligans ransacked and destroyed Jewish shops, homes, schools and synagogues. Of course it does. But another part, more immediate and more painful, is a grief born of rage: grief over the complicity of my fellow Jews in a present and continuing crime, eerily similar to what the Nazis did on Kristallnacht. A crime for which, I fear, ordinary Jews bear more responsibility today than did ordinary Germans 77 years ago.

Yes, I know: the anti-Semitic, state-sponsored terror that broke out on November 9, 1938 was a shocking crime. No one will deny that. Certainly not me. But it was also a serious public-relations setback for the Nazi government – so much so that the Nazis never again attempted that kind of large-scale, public violence against Jews on German soil. In other words, even after 5 years of ceaseless propaganda, and even after the murder of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old Jew – an act Nazi propaganda seized on to “prove” the dangerous savagery of all Jews – the German public was aghast at the lawless destruction of Jewish property and the wanton taking of life.

“All sections of the [German] population,” according to Holocaust historian David Bankier, “reacted with shock” to the violence of Kristallnacht. Ian Kershaw, one of the world’s leading experts on the history of Nazi Germany, has similarly noted that “[t]here were few occasions, if any, in the Third Reich which produced such a widespread wave of revulsion”; even many Nazi Party members were appalled. Norman Finkelstein (citing Bankier and Kershaw) correctly notes that “there was much less popular participation in and support for violent racist incitement in Nazi Germany than in the American South.”

But Lord above – where does that leave us? I’m not trying to build a case for the inhabitants of Nazi Germany. But if those Germans bore responsibility for the crimes of their government, what can I say about the Jews of today – the descendants of terror victims in Germany and Eastern Europe who are now, in large measure, either perpetrators or apologists in a massive system of violence directed against Palestinians?

For that’s exactly what’s happening. In the West Bank and Gaza today, the destruction of homes, mosques, schools, buildings, olive orchards – just about everything owned by the indigenous population – is a constant reality: for Palestinians, virtually every day is a miniature Kristallnacht. This year alone, some 450 Palestinian homes and other structures have been deliberately demolished by the Israelis. Last year saw the destruction of more than 18,000 Palestinian homes in Gaza during just one 51-day assault.

And that’s not the half of it. Israel targets hospitals, ambulances and medical crews. It destroys electric power plants and water treatment facilities. And it targets Palestinian bodies, too, including those of children, a practice it has indulged for many years.

Yet unlike the German public of 1938, the Israeli public – supported by Jewish “leadership” around the world – hardly raises an eyebrow in the face of so much state terror. In fact, Israelis and their Jewish apologists overwhelmingly support the government’s brutal measures against Palestinians under occupation; a recent poll showed that more than half of Israeli Jewish respondents actually support on-the-spot assassinations of any Palestinian who has attacked an Israeli – even if the Palestinian has been captured and poses no further threat. In other words, most Israelis approve of extrajudicial executions for Palestinians – on top of the destruction of their homes, schools, houses of worship and hospitals – as part of a long-term state terror campaign beside which Kristallnacht, that one-night stand, almost looks like an amateurish escapade.

And we Jews – who, of all people, must know the evils of oppressing a helpless population – we are going right along with it.

I must add a personal coda to this tragic tale. Last year – almost at the same time Israeli forces were pulverizing Gaza, killing more than 1,500 civilians, including over 500 children – I learned that a prominent school for newly-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem was building a new nine-story, 10,000-square-meter complex in occupied Sheikh Jarrah. Because I was once a student at Ohr Somayach’s sister facility in Monsey, New York, I wrote the administration to protest the school’s participation in the theft of Palestinian land. I got no answer. Recently I wrote again, noting the “continuing series of violent crimes” Israel was using to secure its occupation of East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah, adding that I hoped “principle will triumph over convenience and that Ohr Somayach can find a better way to teach Torah than by associating it with robbery.”

In response, someone at the Monsey branch wrote back to say that it is “independent” of the Jerusalem facility and has “little if any information regarding the subject you raised.” The parent institution in Israel has not even bothered to answer me.

Just days ago, as fate would have it, Ohr Somayach was the subject of the cover story of the November 4 issue of a major Orthodox Jewish periodical, Mishpacha. The article extolled the school for making “the simple truth” the core of its curriculum and for refusing to make any “compromise,” even “to help recruitment.” But not a word of the text mentioned that this center of religious teaching will soon be part and parcel of a criminal enterprise driving people from their homes – surely about the deepest sort of duplicity, and the vilest sort of “compromise,” one could readily imagine.

The Ohr Somayach episode, one close to my heart, tells the whole story in synecdoche. Today’s Kristallnacht is proceeding in silence, a silence more damning than the German reaction 77 years ago. Perpetrated by the very people who annually commemorate the evil of similar crimes once committed against them, this Kristallnacht is committed by and for Jews: Jews carry it out, Jews quietly contribute to it, Jews look the other way – all the while shouting “Never again!” at the first hint of blame.

Evidently, Israeli propaganda has more effectively dehumanized Palestinians than even the Nazis managed to dehumanize German Jews in the 1930s. Is that what we’ve learned from the horrors of the Nazi persecutions? And this time around, how many of us can say we are not complicit: Jewish institutions, the rabbinate, Jewish “leadership,” Jewish supporters of “liberal” politics, Jews dedicated to religion that rejects “compromise” – except when it comes to torturing Palestinians?
I see no answers – none but rage and grief.

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