Fighting Anti-Semitism: Lessons From Kristallnacht | Opinion

Eighty-two years ago yesterday, Nazis and their enablers across Germany and Austria razed over 1,400 synagogues, smashed the windows and plundered over 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and murdered almost 100 Jews in a violent pogrom that became known as "Kristallnacht"—or the "Night of Broken Glass."

In the weeks that followed, approximately 30,000 Jews were transported to concentration camps in a jarring prelude to the further evil that would ensue.

Kristallnacht was a murderous example of the capacity of humans to escalate from indifference, demonization and singling out of a group of people—Jews, in this case—to violence. First by words and through dehumanization, and then through the Nazi infrastructure of death.

Today, this singling out of Jews again—and by extension, the Jewish state, including through nefarious attempts to boycott Israel—represents a collective form of amnesia, indifference and willful disregard of history. It indicates that for many, very little has, in fact, been learned from history.

As the great philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

For some, the phrase "Never Again" may be no more than an empty slogan. But not for the Jewish people, the Jewish state or those with a clear moral conscience.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel implored us to "take sides," warning that "neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

This week, it is imperative we not only remember our Jewish brothers and sisters murdered in the Kristallnacht by the Nazi machinery of death, but also to recall that so many of their fellow citizens stood idly by—many outright cheering on—as accomplices in the greatest act of evil in modern history.

However, remembrance, while imperative, is not enough alone.

We must speak out. We must act out. We must never remain indifferent in the face of such hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism.

In order to combat this oldest and most enduring of hatreds, we must first be able to recognize and call it out. That includes adopting the all-encompassing International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which refers not only to traditional Jew-hatred, but also to its modern-day manifestation, such as the delegitimization of Israel and attacks on Zionism that masquerade as legitimate criticism.

Dozens of countries from across Europe and the world have adopted the IHRA definition, with the latest, Bahrain, also bravely becoming the first Arab country to do so.

Quite simply, if we cannot define that which we are trying to defeat, how can we defeat it?

We must also invest in education, focusing not only on the history of anti-Semitism, modern-day racism and the Holocaust, but also the immense contributions that the Jewish people and Jewish texts have made to society.

Holocaust memorial in Berlin on November 9,
Holocaust memorial in Berlin on November 9, 2020 TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

As Nelson Mandela stated in his 1994 autobiography, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love."

We must also recognize that racial hatred is not a uniquely Jewish problem, and that what starts with the Jews, seldom ends with the Jews. Today, other minorities are increasingly vilified and instead of embracing "the other," we increasingly shun our fellow citizens. Jews, based on our history and experience alone, have a duty to stand up for the oppressed in the wider struggle for racial equality and tolerance.

Finally, the modern expression of anti-Semitism must also be seen through the lens of today's digital age, where Jew-hatred and even Holocaust denial are proliferating at an uncontrollable pace.

Some social media giants, like Facebook, have taken the principled decision to ban material that denies or distorts the Holocaust. But in a recent Senate hearing, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, inexplicably claimed that Holocaust denial does not qualify as "misinformation" falling within the company's hate speech policy.

At the same time, earlier this year, at a Knesset (Israeli parliament) hearing on online anti-Semitism, a Twitter representative told me—with a straight face—that the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei's calls for genocide against Israel are "mere foreign policy sabre-rattling" and therefore acceptable "commentary on political issues of the day."

While encouraging for robust expression of free speech, social media companies must not be permitted to allow their platforms to be used by those inciting violence and promoting Holocaust denial.

As long as social media companies continue to turn their back and enable such Jew-hatred and violence to flourish, one cannot help but ask: Are they any different than the bystanders of Kristallnacht, who turned their backs as synagogues and Jewish businesses were razed?

Arsen Ostrovsky is an Israel-based international human rights lawyer. You can follow him on Twitter: @Ostrov_A.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.