Kristallnacht + 77: What have we learned?

Rabbi Norman Patz
Shabbat Toledot – November 13, 2015
Temple Sholom of West Essex

NOTE: This sermon was delivered when we were first hearing the reports of the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris. In editing my text for circulation, I have sharpened the description of the volatile domestic and international context in which anti-Semitism has returned.

Late this afternoon there was a terrorist attack in Paris that targeted at least four places, including a sports stadium and a theater. More than 100 people have been killed and many more injured. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and our prayers for those who are struggling for their lives.

On this 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazi government of Germany authorized “spontaneous” attacks against German Jews, when synagogues all over Germany were burned, the plate glass windows of Jewish-owned stores shattered, and thousands of Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps, I want to consider the lessons: those learned and those still unlearned. With the terrorist attacks in mind, these lessons are all the more urgent and tragically timely.

Eva Noskova, the last Jew living in Dvůr Králové, the Czech town from which our Holocaust Torah comes, had an unusual memory of Kristallnacht – not of the event itself, in 1938, when she was still an infant – but of its anniversary in 2007. The Star of David monument that our congregation helped erect was finally in place on the site of the destroyed synagogue, but it was still more than three months before the dedication ceremony was to take place. Although no public attention had yet been paid to the monument, Eva was very fearful, afraid that the Star of David would be desecrated with swastikas or anti-Jewish slogans. On the morning of November 10th, very fearfully, she went to check on the monument. She was shocked – and incredibly moved – to find bouquets of flowers and more than a dozen memorial candles on the horizontal stone of the star. This, in a town where she was the only remaining Jew! In her speech at the dedication of the monument, she thanked the anonymous townspeople who honored the memory of Dvůr Králové’s vanished Jewish community and, by their actions, showed that they understood what a tragedy it was.

That spontaneous tribute, remembering the assault on the Jews of Germany and “end of the beginning” or “beginning of the end” that it was, stands in stark contrast to what we see happening today. Yes, there are Kristallnacht remembrance ceremonies, but their lessons are not reflected in the behavior of governments and nations toward Jews and toward Israel today. In fact, Jews were not even invited to participate in the Swedish town of Umea’s commemoration of the day. Why? Here is the explanation given by the commemoration’s organizer: “The Jewish community wasn’t invited because we assumed they might be uncomfortable” given how many Palestinian flags and anti-Israel banners were displayed at last year’s ceremony. This, in the Sweden that has involuntarily volunteered to be destroyed by the refugees they are welcoming in the name of humanitarianism.

Shock and regret over the attack by the Nazi government on its own innocent Jewish citizens has virtually everywhere been largely replaced by active hostility to Jews. This, only 77 years later, only 70 years after the end of World War II when the horrifying dimensions of the Holocaust were revealed. We need to examine how such a turnaround happened, and why. And to show how that turnabout distracts, how it masks the real challenges facing our society today.

When the United Nations declared that “Zionism is racism” in that notorious resolution voted on November 9, 1975 (did the delegates notice the irony that their decision was taken on the anniversary of Kristallnacht?), they were merely making official a trend in international politics that had been developing since Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Nowadays, hostility to Israel is so taken for granted that young people are surprised to learn that it wasn’t always that way.

From the end of the Second World War on, world public opinion, except of course that of the Arab states, was overwhelmingly supportive of the effort to create a Jewish state, and when Israel was established, in 1948, it was welcomed into the community of nations and celebrated as a justified triumph of the Jewish spirit after the Holocaust – and celebrated as an example of what the United Nations could achieve when its members worked together.

And through the 50s and 60s, until 1967, it was scrappy, tough little Israel fighting off the Arab hordes – David versus Goliath. But the Six Day War changed all that. Israel was perceived as no longer imperiled. And anti-Israel forces, supported by the Soviet Union and Red China, undertook to reverse the narrative – no longer Israel the David against the Arab Goliath, but the Goliath Israel versus the poor defenseless David of the Palestinians. And now it was the Palestinians who were portrayed as victims – victims of a Nazi-like Israeli monster: not only victims, but a progressive movement for liberation being opposed by the Zionists who had usurped their homeland. This effort has been totally successful. Leftist European intellectuals, who love only dead or powerless Jews, took up the new story and made it a major element of their so-called progressive-ism.

That same hostility has come to our country as well. There were contributing factors. The murder of the eleven Israeli athletes by PLO terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics brought the PLO to world attention. Then the oil embargo, which resulted from the Yom Kippur War, forced Western governments to revise their self-interests. And then came the intellectual theory of Orientalism promulgated by Edward Said, which asserted that whites had tyrannized people of color for centuries. According to Said’s theory, the struggle of the Palestinians was something far beyond a political cause; it was nothing less than a battle for redemption from 2000 years of white supremacy. (See Max Eden’s review of Making David into Goliath, by Joshua Muravchik in The Washington Times, July 21, 2014.)

And thus was created the politics of victimization. Never mind that the PLO and Hamas are homophobic, anti-women, anti-individual, anti-civil rights – they are glorified and championed by unthinking, knee-jerk do-gooders as the oppressed of the earth.

In a Rosh Hashanah sermon last year, I described this phenomenon as the “treachery of the intellectuals,” who have replaced reason and reality with the blinders of a warped ideology. This mindset with all its contradictions and hypocrisy, began with the intellectual attacks on Israel, but we now see that it has unleashed a demon, the grievance-mongering behaviors that are now creating chaos on American college campuses, where taking offense against what are characterized as “micro-aggressions” gives power to the self-labeled victims. One writer (Julie Burchill) describes these protesters as “cry-bullies.” They don’t want to debate ideas freely; they don’t want to have their convictions challenged; they only want us to feel their pain!

In this atmosphere, a subtle change has occurred, almost unnoticed. Anti-Semitism used to be directed against Jews as a religious group. Now it is directed to the nation created by Jews. After all, it is still not acceptable in democratic, Western societies to hate Jews publicly, but hatred of Jews characterized as Zionists is just fine. Yes, there are some who try to separate hostility to Israel from hostility to Jews, but the distinction is truly only semantic, not real. Certainly one can oppose various policies of the Israel government or the chokehold on religious matters of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel without being an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew – but that’s not where these people are at. Strong supporters of Israel have reached the point where we think before criticizing Israeli policies lest we give new ammunition to the haters.

Last year, Natan Sharansky, one of the true heroes of our time, analyzed the onslaught on Jews and Israel as having three parts, or three stages – three “Ds”: demonization, double standards and delegitimization.

The demonization of Jews in the 1930s in Germany set the stage for Kristallnacht. With no basis in fact, the Nazis exploited Christian anti-Semitism, exacerbated by blaming German Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and Jewish “imperialist” bankers for bankrupting Germany in the 1920s. “The Jews are our misfortune,” shouted Nazi propaganda. And the civilized world ignored it. Today Israel is regarded as the world’s misfortune. You’ve heard and read the scurrilous accusations that Israel poisons Arab drinking water and Israeli doctors harvest organs from the bodies of innocent Arab civilians murdered by rampaging Israeli soldiers. This is the new version of the old blood libel.

Double-standarding Israel is as current as this week’s news. The European Union now requires labels on all imports from Israel that are “made in the West Bank.” No other country is so vilified, not China, which occupies Tibet; not Russia, which occupies eastern Ukraine; not Morocco, which occupies Western Sahara. Only Israel.

This despite the fact that a large number of the West Bank workers who produce these products are Palestinian Arabs. This is selective outrage, being used to create “legal” ghetto walls around Israel. And it is coupled with false moral outrage: Israel’s self-defense is equated with Palestinian terrorism. And no outrage – in fact, no comment at all – about the “knife the Jews” songs on the Palestinian hit parades or the films shown to young school children to inspire them to become jihadist martyrs. It is sickening.

Then there’s Sharansky’s third D: delegitimization. You Jews don’t belong here. This land is not yours. There never was a Temple in Jerusalem. Or a Second Temple. Adam and the angels built El Aksa long before you claim your Temple was here. Israel was born in the sin of driving the Palestinians from their homes.

No one seems to remember that until 1948 the name Palestinian was what everyone called the Jews living there. I’m afraid many of the children and grandchildren of people in our own congregation have no idea of that fact – or what it means.

The goal of the three Ds is demoralization, disenfranchisement from the world community and, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. This is the stark reality that we confront 77 years after Kristallnacht.

What have we learned in these 77 years? Nations that we regarded as civilized can be turned. Demagogues can create new realities for their own purposes, realties based on lies. They can subvert the principles of free speech and individual rights with fine-sounding phony appeals for justice and the end of oppression. And many innocents – and apparently there are a great many innocents, students and faculty at elite universities among them – embrace the big lie. They want to be secure and coddled and protected rather than challenged – and that makes them dangerous. They are rejecting reality when they preoccupy themselves with distracting issues such as BDS and “safe spaces.” How will these students act when they become the leaders of society in the near future? The faculty members and administrators who cave in to them are unindicted co-conspirators in undermining and destabilizing democracy at a time when our entire civilization is threatened.

What else have we learned? That Israel is still David; I wish it were as powerful as its enemies assert. Israel is on the defensive. And the Jews of Israel are our people. What’s more, Israel is the West’s canary in the mineshaft. You’ve heard me say this many times. The campaign against Israel is the first phase of attacks against the West, with democracy and human rights on the line. Look at what is happening already in Europe! In our country, phase two has already started. Its horrific salvos were the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. We should have understood the warning when our enemies declared “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” It’s been 22 years since the first attack on the World Trade Center and we still don’t get it. I understand why we are still shocked but why are we surprised by jihadi attacks like those in Paris a few hours ago? What is not yet clear? Are we blind?

The Torah portion for this Shabbat speaks of the birth of Jacob. Last January, when I presented a d’var Torah at the annual conference of NAORRR, the organization of retired Reform rabbis, the parashah for that Shabbat dealt with Jacob’s death. I cited rabbinic commentators Rashi and Sfat Emet, who said that when Jacob died, Jews entered into spiritual slavery, unable to see reality because they were blinded by superficiality – and that such superficiality is the experience of exile. Applying this startling teaching, I offered a contemporary application: “Too many Jews are blind to the existential realities of Jewish life. Specifically, American exceptionalism, from the immediate post-Holocaust years until the present, has blinded many Jews to the return of murderous anti-Semitism, to the powerful forces allied in working to delegitimize Israel, to the increasing and non-negotiable hostility of so many elements of Western society, especially among European and American academics, not only toward Israel but also toward Jews and Judaism itself.”

I asked: “Are we being blind to the unfolding of a new reality: the end of the brief golden age of Jews in Western society: Is that what the rabbinic commentators were warning us about? What will we do about it? What can we do about it?”

Now, this sermon has focused on the return of Western anti-Semitism and the new intolerance of which it is a part. This is a tragedy by itself. It threatens all Jews directly. But this new reality is unfolding within a larger reality: the assault of anti-Western jihadis, whether ISIS, Al Qaeda or whatever name they call themselves, on us all. Israel and Jews are not the problem. Those who concentrate on vilifying Jews and Israel are distracting the West from paying attention to the real problem. They are getting us to fiddle while Paris and Beirut – or is it Rome – the scenes of today’s attacks – are burning. We all need each other to stand and face those who want to murder us.

I am frightened for the future of our people and for the future of democracy.