Kristallnacht, and Our Modern-Day Approach to Antisemitism
Seventy-nine years ago, Nazis across Germany and Austria razed synagogues, smashed windows and murdered almost 100 innocent Jews in a violent pogrom. Kristallnacht — or the “Night of Broken Glass” — is so named to describe the shattered glass that littered the streets the next morning. In the weeks that followed, approximately 30,000 Jews were transported to concentration camps — a sorrow foreshadowing of what would soon ensue.
On Kristallnacht’s 79th anniversary, I am compelled to address the rising tide of antisemitism sweeping Europe, reaching levels not seen since the end of the darkest chapter in Europe’s history.
In the first half of 2017, some 767 antisemitic attacks were recorded in the UK alone. This represents the highest figure since monitoring began in 1984 — and, staggeringly, was a 30 percent increase from 2016. In the meantime, violent assaults on Jews this year have risen 78 percent compared with the same period in 2016.
The above figures are broadly replicated in other major Jewish communities throughout Europe, including France and Germany. Even in the U.S., according to a recent survey by the ADL, there has been a significant spike in antisemitism across the country.
Kristallnacht is considered by many to represent the transition from the harassment of Jewish communities to outright violence against them.
Seventy-nine years later, many Jews across Europe are once again singled out because of their race — with Jewish property, institutions and even cemeteries, coming under assault.
Clearly, a new way to combat this tide of hatred is required.
Until now, the international community has focused attentions on ‘minimizing’ the problem. This is inherently problematic; it enables us to label a reduction in antisemitism as a ‘success.’ What is needed is the eradication of antisemitism completely. To achieve this, we must be more proactive, smarter and more creative.
As I have said before, I believe that there are five key areas of focus for which all global citizens, not just the Jewish community, should pursue.
First, we must adopt a universal definition of antisemitism in Europe. The Israeli Jewish Congress (IJC) — an organization I co-founded to support Jewish communities — has advocated for this for some time. Defining the problem is the first step to eradicating it.
In this regard, I commend European countries, including the UK, Germany, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria, for adopting the all-encompassing International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. This definition accepts that the delegitimization of Israel and attacks on Zionism can also manifest as antisemitism. If we cannot define what we are trying to defeat, how can we defeat it? Therefore, I would call on all IHRA Member States to adopt this definition of antisemitism.
The second necessity is that we promote the value of education in understanding the scale of the problem. This program should not solely focus on the history of antisemitism, bigotry and the Holocaust; we should also touch on the vital contribution of Jewish people and texts to the wider cultural and economic prosperity of Europe.
Kristallnacht is another important reminder that the Holocaust did not begin with the death camps; that’s where it ended. Rather, it began with words, the singling out of one group of people and far too many in society looking the other way in the face of such hatred. Nobody is born to hate; they learn to hate.
Third, we must recognise that oppression is not a uniquely Jewish problem, and that what starts with the Jews, seldom ever ends with the Jews. When we consider the predicament of other minorities, racial or religious, hatred and bigotry is rarely far behind. The Jewish community should consider itself a partner in a wider struggle, and cooperate with other faith groups in the battle for their right to exist peacefully.
Fourth, recognizing that antisemitism and online hatred represents a major challenge today, we need to develop communications strategies that are fit for the digital age. Whilst social media channels are used as platforms for inciting racial hatred against the Jewish community, these platforms can also be used to reach new audiences — and encourage them to be advocates. We must develop engaging and comprehensive strategies to use these tools effectively.
Fifth, we need to energize the global debate on the roles and responsibilities of large technology firms to prevent the sharing of hateful commentary. We can utilize the pre-existing legal frameworks across Europe, as well as supporting modernization efforts to ensure that legislation is fit for the digital age. But the internet knows no state borders, and so our work with technology firms must be conducted at the international level.
In a landmark address before the European Parliament last year, former UK chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described antisemitism as a “mutating virus.” Containment is not enough. It is high time we find an antidote.
Kristallnacht was a murderous example of the capacity of humans to escalate from harassment to violence. Yet the EU was built on a foundation of tolerance and openness. For this reason, it is the responsibility of European governments — and European people — to reconcile this foundation of tolerance with an unequivocal commitment to eradicating harassment and violent antisemitic racism at its source.
Vladimir Sloutsker is the president and co-founder of the Israeli Jewish Congress (IJC).