Editor’s Note: Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and distinguished fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. He is the author of the novels, “The Golems of Gotham,” “Second Hand Smoke,” and “Elijah Visible,” in addition to other fiction and nonfiction titles. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Back in the day when world events still had the capacity to shock, Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) – its 80th anniversary commemorated Friday and Saturday – was a clear foreshadowing of events that led to the Holocaust.
Genocides, after all, don’t occur overnight. The fraying of civilization happens first. During these two days of anti-Semitic rioting in 1938 in Austria and Germany, more than 100 Jews were killed, and 267 synagogues and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed.
Today, one doesn’t have to search that far to see disturbing premonitions of Jew hatred in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht, condemned the resurgence of anti-Semitism online and in public spaces, citing several specific instances of violence.
In France, in 2014, a synagogue was surrounded by a mob chanting, “Death to the Jews!”; four Jews were murdered at a kosher market in 2015; and two elderly women were killed – one beaten and tossed from her balcony in 2017, the other stabbed to death and set on fire in 2018.
This surge of hate in Europe is one reason what happened in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue was such a jolt to American Jews. The murder of 11 congregants may not have been the first recent attempt to kill Jews in the United States, but it instantly became the deadliest in America’s history. Since then, Jews have been made agonizingly aware of the Anti-Defamation League’s latest findings of a rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents – a nearly 60% spike in 2017, after a 35% rise in 2016.
These two years coincide with the presidency of Donald Trump.
Was the Tree of Life massacre America’s Kristallnacht? The anguish of Pittsburgh may well cause many American Jews to become more wary. Perhaps some had become too complacent. Given the well-honed survival instincts Jews have cultivated throughout their history, shouldn’t they have anticipated that America, one day, may no longer be such a safe haven?
It is a generally confusing time for American Jews. The Unite the Right catastrophe came with its own rallying cry: “Jews will not replace us.” This, at a rally ostensibly to preserve a statue of Robert E. Lee, whose cause had nothing to do with Jews.
The results of the midterm elections reflect a new progressive agenda within the Democratic Party – the party to which the vast majority of American Jews belong. Jewish ethnicity and status as an American minority is not really part of the progressive calculus, however.
Neither is unqualified support of Israel. Many progressives view Jewish-Americans largely as privileged white people, not necessarily as a group in need of special protection. To many of them, Israel is a colonialist enterprise, not a miracle of Jewish self-determination. Resolutions to boycott Israel continue to surface at American college campuses. The double standard and moral hypocrisy contained within them rouses little outrage.
Even the past suffering of Jews counts for little nowadays in certain quarters. Trivializing the Holocaust and normalizing Holocaust denial have become distressingly common. The organizers of the Women’s March refused to condemn the vulgar anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan, who recently compared Jews to “termites” – a failure recently noted by actress and activist Alyssa Milano. And, yet, Jews were and remain at the forefront of the feminist movement.
And then there is Donald Trump, whose connection to rising anti-Semitism is mind-boggling. The President struck a tone of moral equivocation after Charlottesville, and he was hesitant to denounce David Duke during the presidential campaign.
Yet, at the same time, the President’s daughter and grandchildren are Jewish. Does he not realize that even tacit acceptance of Jew hatred endangers their lives? The man who has supported Israel in unprecedented ways is the same man who casually inserts code words for anti-Semitism into his public pronouncements.
The President may not be bookish, but he surely knows that words matter, otherwise he wouldn’t trumpet dog whistles like “globalists” and “America First” whenever he feels like tossing red meat into the bread and circuses of those frenzied red states. The problem is the normalizing function these words possess. Repeat it often enough and it starts to feel true. Hitler railed against the “lying press” until he felt empowered to do away with them altogether. Winking too often at a primed audience can give license to the once unimaginable.
Furthermore, Trump’s nativistic, xenophobic statements about asylum seekers and illegal aliens resonate as all too familiar to Jewish ears, and may be the cause of its own anxiety. After all, the doomed Jews of Europe were largely not welcome in the United States during the Third Reich. They, too, were cast as a corrupting foreign influence that brought only harm.
Kristallnacht was a warning that many European Jews failed to comprehend. American Jews are correct in feeling anxious, even though Trump is no Hitler and America is not the Third Reich. I see no indication that Trump has anything against Jews; he just craves the adulation of crowds more than anything else – regardless of who’s in the crowd. And unlike Nazi Germany, violence against Jews in the United States is limited to the fringes of society. The people of Pittsburgh rallied to the aid of their neighbors. Law enforcement took immediate action and apprehended the perpetrator. Condemnation was widespread. Empathy was everywhere.
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The only thing shattered was not glass, but that feeling of security being a Jew in America.