Kristallnacht, Pittsburgh and the Age-Old Fight Against Anti-Semitism

By Dr. Alan Kadish

Today and tomorrow, we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the terrible tragedy known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. On November 9 and November 10, 1938, Nazis in Germany carried out a full-fledged pogrom. In the course of just two days, they killed 91 Jews, arrested 30,000, torched 300 synagogues and destroyed 7,000 Jewish businesses. While Hitler had been passing anti-Jewish legislation since 1933, on November 10, 1938, anyone who had ignored those danger signs got a clear message — there was no future for Jews in Germany.

With Hitler’s rise, Jews lost their citizenship, their livelihood, their dignity and daily lives as they knew them. As we remember those devastating times, we cannot help but reflect on the events in Pittsburgh and express our collective sorrow at the rise of anti-semitism in our own country. The murderous attack was a wake-up call reminding us all that anti-semitism did not end with the Holocaust.

On the contrary, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Anti-semitic incidents constituted half of all hate crimes in New York City this year, according to the New York City Police Department.

The attack in the Tree of Life Synagogue was the largest ever anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil, claiming 11 lives. Kristallnacht devastated thousands of lives in multiple ways and involved state-sponsored antisemitism. The attacks two weeks ago were the actions of a lone extremist, although one who acted in an atmosphere of increasing nationalism and racism. Despite these major differences, Pittsburgh has had a major impact on many of our psyches.

One reason is that the choice of a temple as the site of a massacre was particularly jarring. When Jews are targeted simply because they are Jews as they pray in a house of worship, it is hard not to recall scenes of Jews being beaten and the burning of Torah scrolls and holy books.

Perhaps it is because Jews in America have been comfortable and integrated into general society that last weekend’s events were so surprising. The fear and lack of belonging experienced by Jews throughout the ages in countries all over the world was never present here. As we pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, we must ask ourselves if the sense of safety was an illusion. That attack shattered our belief systems, making many Jews and non-Jews alike re-evaluate current trends in American society.

What is the message of the events in Pittsburgh? Unlike in Germany in 1938, most people still believe Jews have a bright future in the United States. The Pittsburgh shootings were not the result of a long standing campaign against Jews. But they did not occur in a vacuum. Political disagreements have been an essential part of American democracy and discourse since our country’s inception, but as a nation, we can’t let passions be inflamed to the point where ultra-nationalism, radicalism and hate take over.

This attack pointed to the need for promoting mutual interaction and understanding. People must be given more opportunities to mix with diverse groups. Stereotypes that are shaped by perception and not reality must be broken and that only happens when people are able to connect with those they only spoke or heard about, but never actually met. This is not true just for religious groups but for all of us in an increasingly polarized country.

Universities today find themselves at the center of this struggle and have a special responsibility to counteract bias and hate. Our campuses are diverse communities, with potential to be launching points for interfaith dialogue and anti-bias education. At the same time, we find ourselves targeted by white supremacist and anti-Israel propaganda campaigns that seek to influence young minds. From the murders in Pittsburgh we learned that we must redouble our efforts to combat hate. We need to do a more thorough job to integrate ethical and moral education through pedagogical approaches that champion tolerance, respect and inclusion.

We need to teach critical thinking skills and media literacy so that students are resilient to stereotypes, conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies via social media, the Internet and conventional media. As academics and thought leaders, we need to invest in research centers that build new knowledge of both the impact of racism and anti-semitism and how to combat it.

Kristallnacht should not be viewed as a harbinger of things to come in the United States. Our peaceful, democratic election this week reminds us of that. However, it is a reminder that we must work together to combat violence and hate and continue the hard work of building a country that values diversity and tolerance.

Dr. Alan Kadish is President of the Touro College & University System the largest Jewish-sponsored educational institution in the United States.