Today marks the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The pogrom, which, according to historians, was carried out by Nazi paramilitary groups with the participation of members of Hitler Youth as well as “regular” German citizens, is widely seen as the unofficial start of the Holocaust.
By the end of the violence, countless Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools lay in ruins, 267 synagogues had been destroyed, over 7,000 Jewish businesses had been damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men had been arrested. Estimates of the death toll range from “just” 91 people to over 600.
As the violence unfolded, German authorities—the very people empowered to protect German citizens—stood by, looked on, and, at best, did nothing. More than that, however, historians now suggest that the pogrom was likely encouraged, if not organized and initiated, by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, ostensibly in response to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a 17-year-old Jewish teen.
We have marked Kristallnacht each year since I came to TSTI, but this year it feels different.
This year, we see how thick the layer of antisemitism that sits just beneath the surface is.
This year, we see how quickly an angry mob mentality can take over and how otherwise “polite” citizens can be swept up in performing acts of intimidation and violence.
This year, we see that there are a frightening number of people who, once given a rationalle to release their hate, can act upon their latent antisemitism.
This year, it is impossible to NOT draw parallels between this dark day in our history and our current reality.
But there are differences.
In 1938, the government was either directly encouraging of the pogrom or passively stood by, complicit in the atrocities.
In 2023, our government, with rare exceptions, is standing firmly with our community and with Israel in their war against Hamas.
In 1938, law enforcement stood by and allowed the violence to unfold.
In 2023, Federal and local law enforcement understand their role and are committed to keeping our community safe.
And that is the point: the anger and rage that drove Kristallnacht feel all too familiar today, but thankfully in our day we have leaders forcefully speaking out against it and law enforcement standing with us.
And that makes all the difference.
When university presidents and chancellors speak out to affirm the importance of free speech, but also firmly and clearly warn that they will act if free speech crosses the line into hate speech, their campuses remain relatively safe for Jewish students. When such “leaders” fail to speak out and act, they become complicit in allowing the hate directed at our community to grow.
According to a letter being delivered to the president of MIT by concerned Jewish students, pro-Palestinian students gathered to demonstrate on behalf of their community yesterday, as is their right. The demonstration became increasingly angry, and according to reports, Jewish students were warned to avoid certain parts of campus. At 5 pm ALL students were warned to avoid one “hotspot” due to the violent nature of the protest.
Peaceful protests are an essential aspect of exercising free speech. However, once there is ANY need to warn off ANY student because of potential violence, we are no longer discussing the peaceful exercise of free speech. THAT is where leadership comes in. THAT is when the school administration should have shut down the protest. And THAT was the moment MIT’s administration failed their Jewish students.
Students have a right to peacefully stand with the residents of Gaza and demonstrate against the war.
Jewish students have a right to peacefully stand with Israel and call for the immediate release of the hostages taken by Hamas.
Leaders have a responsibility to protect ALL students.
And WE have the right to demand that those leaders who are not must either do better or step down.
If you have a student in college whose campus has become increasingly unwelcoming and unsafe, please reach out to me. Their failure to act MUST be called out.
Also, Hillel International, ADL (the Anti-Defamation League), and others have launched the Campus Antisemitism Legal Line (CALL), a free legal protection helpline for students who have experienced antisemitism:
The hate that drove Kristallnacht 85 years ago feels all too familiar. Today, however, we have the right to expect leaders to address such hate with clarity. If they are not, we have the right and the responsibility to “help” them reach moral clarity and ensure their campuses remain safe for all students.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen