On November 9th we remember the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass in Germany. Still, as we already observe a day of remembrance on Holocaust Day in the spring, some might think that marking Kristallnacht is superfluous. As shocking as it was, the 1938 pogrom was one of many events that served as a prelude to the Final Solution. Yom Hashoah, on the other hand, memorializes all six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis.
In fact, observing Kristallnacht, especially on this landmark anniversary, has a very special meaning that has deep resonance for the world we live in today.
When we say "Never Again" regarding the Holocaust, we rededicate ourselves to two vital messages for the Jewish community. First, the Jewish people can never again to allow themselves to be powerless. In the face of overwhelming evil, the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Jews had no self-defense, no allies and nowhere to go to. Today the State of Israel is a home for Jews, with a strong military; Jews in danger have allies, in particular the U.S. and the American Jewish community.
The second message of "Never Again" is a moral one. We must stand up not only against anti-Semitism but all forms of prejudice, violence and discrimination against vulnerable minorities. Not doing so leads to the atrocities of Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia.
If the message of "Never Again" has left an important imprint, that should lead us to emphasize more than ever the lessons of Kristallnacht. More than out of memory and respect, we need to commemorate Kristallnacht because it teaches us about the process of genocide and how it evolves and - most important - the need to stand up against hate long before it turns into genocide.
The Holocaust did not happen overnight. It was created first by two millennia of anti-Semitism in Europe; then by the rise of a racist, anti-Semitic party in Germany; then by anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence; then by elections that brought the Nazis to power. An escalating process of anti-Jewish propaganda, boycotts of Jewish businesses, intimidation of Jews, and legal measures against the Jews of Germany followed. Then came Kristallnacht, war and the Final Solution. As important as the message of "Never Again" is, Kristallnacht teaches us that anti-Semitism must be combated in its earliest manifestations, before it evolves into something far worse.
Sometimes I am asked why the Anti-Defamation League is so quick to condemn public expressions of anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred whenever they appear. It is because we understand that the failure to delegitimize hate in its initial stages gives it space and air to grow and to become something far more lethal. The building of the death camps did not start with bricks, but with words – ugly and hateful words.
It is also why we have developed vast education programs for children and adults against anti-Semitism and prejudice, including anti-bias education for the very young, even preschoolers. Hate is a process whose advancement education can arrest.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that hatred automatically leads to death camps. Clearly, the Holocaust was a unique event with unique historical and political underpinnings.
I am suggesting, however, that we must see extremism and violent prejudice in dynamic, not static, terms. Without amplifying manifestations of hate as budding holocausts, we can recognize that the rhetoric of hate left unchecked can cause great damage to human beings.
We see that all over our world: Sunnis and Shiites demonizing each other, leading to suicide bombs against each other’s mosques. And we see it in the rise of parties like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary which would like to recreate the anti-Semitism in Europe of the past.
We see it in the anti-gay posture of the Russian government which makes gays in Russia vulnerable.
We see it in the drumbeat of anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Arab world which provides the rationalization for attacks on Jews.
All of this and more speak to how important the commemoration of Kristallnacht is. The 75th anniversary is a good time for all of us to recommit to act against hate now.
Thinking about the Night of Broken Glass even today breaks our hearts. But it also reinforces our determination to do the right thing to prevent future explosions of mass hatred.