Where are we Headed? A Reflection on the 74th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

In hindsight, Kristallnacht signaled what was to come: the rounding up and extermination of European Jewry. Most of the world did not intervene and worse, chose to block Jewish efforts to escape. As people either collaborated with or chose to ignore the implications of each step along the path toward genocide, the Germans carried out their plans with impunity and in public.  German civilians either explicitly or tacitly supported a regime of incredible brutality.  They stood by while Jewish neighbors and friends were rounded up and killed. Acts of collective nonviolent resistance like the one pursued by the village of Le Chambon (they saved 5000 Jews) were rare.

I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a sixth generation North American Jew in the Reform tradition. I am still amazed by the wisdom of my rabbinic teachers in response to the Shoah. I learned from the rabbis of my youth not to barricade myself in layers of fear and distrust; rather, they taught me to protest racism in all its ugly manifestations in public because never again meant never again for anyone. They taught me that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer.  They taught me that silence in the face of injustice is complicity with injustice. They tied these lessons to their version of Jewish religion. I never imagined that I would have to apply these lessons to the actions of the Jewish community in relationship to Israel. I incorrectly assumed that the Shoah had somehow immunized us against harming others, that we had learned the Biblical lesson: do not oppress others, for you were once oppressed.

When I was seventeen I traveled to Israel as an exchange student where I confronted a deeply uncomfortable truth with which I have been wrestling ever since: the same racist patterns of segregation, discrimination and mass incarceration of people on the basis of their identity which I learned to resist in North America because of Jewish experience during the Shoah was, in fact, occurring in Israel. Only instead of white people oppressing blacks, Jews were oppressing Palestinians. The justification? Security.  But it looked and sounded like racist disdain to my ears.  In 1966 Atallah Mansour told me the story of the Nakba. The Nakba never ended.

For the past forty five years I have been deeply involved with all kinds of peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Palestinians including dialogue, education, delegations and direct action. As I prepare to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I am haunted by profound disquiet.

A recent poll of Jewish citizens of Israel (September 2012) based on a sample of 503 interviewees is the Israeli response to President Jimmy Carter’s question: Peace or Apartheid?  The majority of Jewish Israelis have answered: apartheid or, as Ehud Barak described it, “Us here, them there.”  Most Israelis believe that Israel should be a Jewish state that privileges Jews over “non-Jews” as a matter of law.  To uphold draconian laws that apply only to Palestinians to separate, marginalize and systematically discriminate an entire people based on their national, cultural and religious identity.

Many people are offended by the description of Israel as an apartheid state. What we should be offended by is the actual policies that Israel employs against Palestinians. People outraged by the South African-Israel comparison claim that Israel is nothing like South Africa during the apartheid era because the term apartheid is associated with racism. But they are wrong.

Race is a social, not a biological, construct. Use of the term “apartheid” applies whenever a state codifies into law a preferred identity status, then racializes that identity. The racialized identity group is systematically segregated from the rest of the population into discrete geographic areas (bantustans in South Africa; and areas A, B and C plus Gaza in Israel) in order to dominate and control them.  An apartheid state grants the preferred group access to resources and benefits and denies the same benefits to the denigrated group. Those in the underdog role are forcibly confined to their designated territories. Military repression, mass incarceration and unyielding bureaucracy are used to keep systems of apartheid in place.

No one voluntarily deports themselves from their family land or homes.  Israeli apartheid involves systematic and massive  land appropriation, settler brutality, Jewish only roads, the permit regime, the cutting down of trees, restrictions on family unity, arrest of children, administrative detention without legal recourse, constant military incursion, movement restrictions, severe limitations on export and import capacity, home demolition and the threat of demolition, denial of education and health care, unjust distribution of water, internal transfer and in the case of Gaza, a siege which is making the entire stripe “uninhabitable”.  These conditions makes Palestinians vulnerable to mass killing.

Denying this reality is tantamount to willful ignorance. Mountains of credible testimony collected by a variety of human rights groups such as B’tselem, Al Hak, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Russell Tribunal, the Goldstone Report and thousands of eye witnesses over six decades including Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, internationals and human rights organizations leave no doubt that Israel is pursuing policies that are an insult to Jewish history. Israel’s apartheid regime is a disgrace to the values that I was once taught are the very heart of our tradition.

As Angela Davis recently told the American Public Health Association, you don’t get rid of racism with anti-racism workshops alone! Systematic and institutional change occurs when people engage in mass protest and noncooperation with policies that support a corrupt status quo. That is why Palestinians have called upon us to take up boycott, divestment and sanctions as a way to apply pressure until Israeli apartheid is dismantled.  The object of nonviolent struggle is not to defeat people, but to change the system. Apartheid is not good for the occupied or the occupier. It is a dehumanizing system that promotes endless tragedy for everyone.  We need a new paradigm.

Those deriving profit and benefit from apartheid do not easily surrender their power. The history of nonviolent struggle has taught us that people maintaining an unjust status quo will do as little as possible to prevent real, systematic change. They will obstruct, deflect or suppress with harmful force those who demand their freedom. Institutional change can only arise from movement building, grassroots organizing and steadfastness. Like all freedom struggles, the struggle for Palestinian human rights is a universal struggle. That is why people across nationality, gender and religion are joining together to shape political, economic and social realities that embrace universal standards of human rights.

Overcoming injustice is the first priority of our religious traditions.  This 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht, let us pick up the broken shards of history and fashion a mosaic of peace that honors the human dignity of everyone. This is the true meaning of the promised land.


14 thoughts on “Where are we Headed? A Reflection on the 74th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

  1. Rabbi, thank you for this post. You are an amazingly insightful person and I wish you well in your efforts to educate about the Israeli/Palestine issue. I am a converted Jew but am spiritually connected to all religions. What is happening in Palestine breaks my heart. Bless you in your journey.

  2. Thank you, thank you. It is time more of us had the courage to speak out publicly on the plight of the Palestinians. I tried helping with my book (written by Jews and Arabs), Violence in the Holy Land, but it went unnoticed.

  3. History repeats itself. It is very difficult to change human nature. A typical case of where the oppressed becomes the oppressor and believing it to be right. A typical case of George Orwells Animal Farm,

  4. Dear Rabbi Lynn,

    Welcome. I have just given the first reading to Alil Abunimah book “One Country”. Basicaslly, history aside for the moment, Ali stresses three points) the impossibility of a two State solution to a Palestinian-Israel State 2) the absolute must of one multi- national State and towards this a call to Palestinians and Jews to work at higher level of civilisation based on democracy and human rights for all in order to achieve such an etopia.

    Whilst I agree with the need to work with the Israeli (I cannot envisage an Israeli general public), niether can I envisage comfortable askanzi jews, the Israeli army,
    the Israeli settlers, and in particular the Israeli elite and its leadership ever responding gto any call based on moral and ethical values. Yet this call need to be made exactly to them, but how and by whom? The majority of Palestinians would be open to such ideas as they are now more concerned withy their freedoms and survivial, than Palestine.

    I do not agree with Ali’s veiw that the Occupied someties need to cajole the Occupier.Further I envisage that Israel would rather blow itself up rather than talk to the Palestinian over immediate peace. BDS is only one of many ways that sees the Occupation to expensive to maintain.Then of course there’sObana.

    Thank you


  5. Dear Rabbi Lynn, Thank you for your very poignant and direct post.
    Israeli society, as you well noted, is highly militarized and promotes discrimination and segregation, on several different levels, and this is in addition to occupying Palestine.
    We must continue to do our utmost, together and as individuals, to educate and inform our communities and work to demilitarize Israeli society if we have any hope of creating change and ending occupation. But additionally Israelis must also learn to be accountable for the many atrocities we continually inflict on minority communities within Israel (Palestinians, Mizrachim, Ethiopians, African refugees, women, etc.)
    Thank you once again.
    Your sister activist,
    Ruth Hiller
    New Profile – the movement to demilitarize Israeli society

  6. Beautifully expressed and right on the mark. I wish there were a way to get this to a broader audience. So few expressions of alternative Jewish viewpoints on the Middle East ever make it to the mainstream media.

  7. Lynn,
    Thanks for your moral clarity and willingness to separate the ethics of Judaism from the policies of the Israeli government, for your willingness to recognize your/our responsibilities to, and relationship with, all peoples. That is the true affirmation that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God.

    Doug Hostetter

  8. Thank you for this; I recently spent three months in the South Hebron Hills with the Ecumenical Accompniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, As a Jewish woman I am asked to give a Jewish perspective on what I witnessed and I am thankful that as well as the courageous Israeli activists, such as those from Ta’yoush, Anarchists Against the Wall and many others, that there are Rabbis who also oppose the occupation and who are effectively protesting also ‘not in my name’. As you say the policies are an insult to the terrible history of the Jewish people. We need to all be learning that ‘never again’ after the Nazi holocaust must mean never again – for anyone, And also that never again means never being a perpetrator for that is also a terrible form of dehumanisation. (from Leah Levane in the UK)

  9. First, calling one’s self a “rabbi” while belonging to a group where Atheism is accepted, as it is with “Reform” is a sick joke and that is without wading into the issue of gender.

    Secondly, did your “Rabbis” also teach you about Amalek? Shechem? Purim? The actual history of Chanukkah? I ask because Jews that are big on Progressive values almost never realise how un-Jewish such Western Humanism really is. You claim to represent a faith that blesses genocide and Collective Punishment with the parameters of Halochot by consensus.

    Finally, based upon your few weeks in Israel over the course of decades you definatively state that Israel “commits atrocities” on a daily basis against all minorities. Gee, guess that explains why we Mizrachim vote Far Right to the 80th percentile with 95% voting Right to Far Right overall, people such as yourself- people raised in America- are obsessed about skin colour. Stop projecting your tortured psyche onto us.

    Are their bigots? Absolutely, but more Mizrachim are bigoted against Ashkenazim than the converse. There is ZERO Institutional Racism in Isrsel including attitudes towards Arabs. Please stop portraying yourself as someone even remotely qualified to denigrate six million-plus Jews. Israel is not perfect, but then no nation ever is. However, it has nothing to do with the fantasies you are peddling.

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