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'Nights of broken glass' from 1938 to 2020

'Nights of broken glass' from 1938 to 2020
© Getty Images

While it flies in the face of the orthodoxies of a “woke” culture, Judaism insists that memory is a core value for anyone or any society seeking to build a better future. 

To be clear, it’s never been about memorizing history dates — whether 1619 or 1776 — but instead is about what takeaways we should keep from specific moments in history. And while we all love holidays and celebrations, key lessons learned or unlearned are often echoes from our ancestors’ suffering and failures.

Most famously, the Bible’s Five Books of Moses insist 36 times that we must show compassion for all strangers because the Jewish people once were strangers in the land of Egypt thousands of years ago.

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For Jews, memory is not a luxury but a key part of our DNA. We are taught that the actions of our forefathers and mothers are signs and guideposts that presage our own paths and our people’s fate; a pattern of sin and repair, of failure and success, of exile and return. For generations we have been taught that we shun memory at our peril.

This brings us to the Nazi Holocaust, an unspeakable tragedy of such scope that a new lexicon had to be created to describe the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, among them some 1.5 million children.

Yom Hashoah and International Holocaust Remembrance Day were established to try to wrap our minds around the unfathomable dimensions of human suffering unleashed in that genocide.

But another event — Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” — on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which preceded the ghettos, deportations and gas chambers, is still seared into the collective Jewish psyche.  

On those nights, Hitler unleashed a pogrom, in full view of the world, that began the process of erasing Jews and Judaism from Germany. The Nazis studied the Jews carefully and understood that to marginalize and ultimately eliminate German Jewry they had to target the symbol of the Jewish collective and community: the synagogue.

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The horrors of that night failed to move the hearts and minds of Western leaders. Hitler took note of the apathy and absence of action and empathy for the Jews. The unmistakable, if unspoken, message to Hitler was: We’re not to act; we don’t want the Jews, you deal with them. And so, he did. 

World War II soon was unleashed upon the world. Poland and Eastern European German troops and the SS would be burning down synagogues with trapped Jews inside, transforming the space where the cycle of life had been celebrated into infernos where holy Torahs and holy Jews went up in flames. 

It all began with houses of worship, and not only in Nazi Germany. Joseph Stalin destroyed or closed almost all churches, synagogues and mosques across the Soviet Union. Other communist dictators behind the Iron Curtain followed his diktat. Mao Zedong sought to recast modern China devoid of all vestiges of organized religion. In our day, after allowing for a resurgence of Christianity, China has torn down or closed many churches, taken down minarets, and targeted Muslim Uighurs with draconian measures. 

All of these actions were planned and executed by powerful governments.

This brings us to today’s America. Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of religion by embedding the fundamental right of freedom of worship into our Constitution. For decades there has been bipartisan support to take strong action when hate crimes have targeted houses of worship and the faithful.  

But apparently not in 2020. Racism, anti-Semitism, hate crimes all have become political footballs. Synagogues and Jewish centers have been attacked or torched from Oregon to Delaware to California. So, too, have churches — with impunity. The latest horrific incident was in Portland on Nov. 4: Local media and the New York Post reported on rioters in Portland who smashed up a church that helps the homeless and mentally ill.

“Saint Andre Bessette (Catholic) Church is one of the many buildings that had their windows broken out during this evening’s riot,” the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office tweeted early Thursday. “This organization helps those who are homeless, experiencing poverty, mental health issues and substance abuse.” 

In Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China, the destruction of religious institutions and the targeting of religious leaders were mandated by tyrants. 

The current political and social climate in our nation has made it impossible in many places for law enforcement to act against rioters and for authorities to hold such criminals in jail for more than a few hours. 

Whoever occupies the Oval Office this January, along with the leaders of the next Congress, must make the protection of our religious freedoms and the security of all houses of worship job No. 1. That would be a commitment worthy of making on this Nov. 9. 

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish global human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.