Remembering Kristallnacht when anti-Semitism is on the decline

On the night of November 9, 1938, SA Stormtroopers, encouraged and supported by thousands of German civilians, took to the streets of Nazi Germany and Austria, burning synagogues, attacking Jewish-owned businesses and buildings, and murdering 91 people in what came to be known as “Kristallnacht” – the night of broken glass. 30,000 individuals were arrested that night, and many of them became the first prisoners in newly created concentrations camps.

The Holocaust had begun.

Kristallnacht marked the beginning of Hitler’s war against the Jews – his campaign for a “final solution” to the so-called “Jewish problem.” Seventy-four years later, people gather around the world to remember that horrible and fateful night. But how does one remember and commemorate a terrible past when the present is good and the future is looking even better?

That is the challenge faced in contemporary America, where anti-Semitism has been on the decline for years, and as shown in recent research published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), declined a further 13% in the past year. Recognizing both the base insensitivity and potential dangers of failing to recall the past, it would be equally wrong to ignore the fact that we recall a past which is increasingly different from the American present.

To be sure, the 1,080 incidents of harassment and vandalism recorded by the ADL are 1,080 cases too many. That said however, when one considers that there are almost 6 million Jews living as part of an American population of over 300 million, it’s a tiny number. And as it has been on the decline for years, one can reasonably expect it to shrink further still.

While anti-Semitism remains a real challenge in many, if not most, parts of the world that simply is not the case here in America.

The fact is that Jews, as a group, are not vulnerable in America. We are both contributors to, and the beneficiaries of, the greatest society in which we have ever lived, certainly at least in the Diaspora.

America is different, and that awareness should be a part of any commemoration of Kristallnacht.

A certain measure of vigilance is always appropriate for any minority culture to be sure, and the importance of such vigilance can be a reasonable part of any Kristallnacht commemoration. The idea however, that “some things never change” or that another Kristallnacht is never too far off, perverts reality in ways that may be every bit as dangerous as forgetting the past altogether. In one case we are more likely to repeat the past because we have forgotten it, and in the other case we are more likely to recreate the past because it is the only possibility that we see.

So how does one recall past vulnerability and destruction when one is actually strong and secure? Perhaps one way is to look at the vulnerability and destruction which others are experiencing and helping to alleviate that suffering as we wished others had done for us when we were truly vulnerable ourselves.

I am not drawing a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and any other events, but I do think that one can recall the past in ways which not only teach the past, but inspire us to create a more secure present and safer future for those who suffer today. And while I certainly do not think that one can draw too many parallels between the innocent victims of Nazi hatred 74 years ago, and the innocent victims of Hurricane Sandy, I am struck by the image of broken glass which defines the wreckage of human lives in both cases.

Whether it is by relating to those suffering from ethnic or racial persecution today, or those struggling to clean up the broken class of shattered homes and business in the wake of last week’s storm, the challenge of remembering Kristallnacht 2012 is the same. It is the challenge of remembering forward.

To remember forward, is to appreciate the necessity of memory without become a prisoner of the past.

To remember forward, is to commemorate past suffering without allowing it to become the prism through which all else in the present is seen.

To remember forward, is to recall the past in ways that propel us toward a better future.

Kristallnacht must not be forgotten. It must also be remembered forward. That is the privilege and responsibility which comes with all that is great about being Jewish in America, 74 years after Kristallnacht.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism,” and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.