A Warning From a Smoldering Bible in Portland | Opinion

Finally, after 60 days of Black Lives Matter protests, things seemed to be quieting down. A phased withdrawal of federal law enforcement appeared to be working.

But violent demonstrators did not desire quietness.

After midnight, they burned a Bible and an American flag. Perhaps the arsonists will claim that they were merely practicing constitutionally protected speech.

But is igniting flags and Bibles in the heart of a city that, for two months, has been a riot zone, really protected? Or might it be a textbook example of starting a fire in a crowded theater?

The flag and Bible burners waved Black Lives Matter banners, though without "official" permission. An internet post featured a video that went viral, with more than 1.8 million views and thousands of retweets.

Most Americans have at least a vague idea about Nazi book burnings. On April 8, 1933, the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union proclaimed a nationwide "Action against the Un-German Spirit," which was to climax in a literary purge, or "cleansing" ("Säuberung"), by fire. The burning of works by Jewish authors, and Jewish literature, took precedence over everything else.

There were small-scale, most symbolic book burnings in German history going back to Martin Luther. But 1933 was different. The German Students launched an organized attack on Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sex Research and Library, with 20,000 volumes. The students then burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of "un-German" books in the square at Berlin's State Opera. All over Germany, there were festive torchlit parades followed by ceremonial book burnings by university students—Germany's "best and brightest." In the meantime, on Kristallnacht in November 1938, Torah scrolls and holy Jewish books were burned inside 237 burned synagogues in Germany and Austria.

Germany's book and synagogue burnings continued with the launching of World War II. In 1939, after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, among Germany's first acts of destruction was to burn tens of thousands of volumes of holy texts in the library of Lublin's famous yeshiva.

It would presage the destruction of European Jewry.

These mass desecrations by the Nazis came roughly 700 years after 1242, the year in which King Louis IX of France ordered the burning of 24 cartloads of handwritten copies of the Talmud and other Hebrew manuscripts, amounting to 2,000 irreplaceable volumes.

Of course, that was medieval Europe. How did America react to the Nazi book burnings and related outrages of the 1930s?

Protestors burning items in Portland
Protestors burning items in Portland ALISHA JUCEVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Yale University's head librarian, Professor Andrew Keogh, was sure that "European book burnings are never so serious as the newspapers make them out to be." Yale President James Rowland Angell supported a fundraising campaign to send Yale students to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

What about in the 21st century?

During the protests following George Floyd's murder, houses of worship have been targeted—with the media paying scant attention.

Included was the fire at Washington, D.C.'s historic St John's Episcopal Church and a synagogue in Los Angeles. Later, over a single weekend, four Catholic Church-owned buildings from Boston to Los Angeles were reportedly attacked.

Clearly, flag burning, however you view it, is an act of secular protest.

But the burning of the Bible is different. Bible burners want to eradicate the religious truths which have provided believers with pillars of hope and faith, and which have inspired even non-believers to pursue a just and compassionate world.

This is why the Bible has always been attacked by the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Maos—and yes, the Xis and the Kims of the world.

Totalitarian regimes have always understood that their control could never be total so long as God's word was in the way.

The burning of the Ten Commandments and torching of the Sermon on the Mount do not honor, but desecrate, the martyrdom of George Floyd.

What would the recently deceased civil rights hero John Lewis have to say about self-proclaimed change agents who burn the Hebrew Prophets' very words that propelled MLK's crusade for equal rights?

Almost exactly 200 years ago, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine warned: "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

We have been forewarned.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.