From the Night of Broken Glass to the Tree of Life

Kristallnacht

Tonight is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’, when Nazi-led gangs attacked Jewish people and property across Germany and Austria, leaving around ninety dead, thousands of people deported to concentration camps, and thousands of businesses and hundreds of synagogues destroyed. This was a presage of what was to come, but although many Jews were terrified of what the future would bring, safe countries, such as the UK and the USA made it clear that only a limited number of refugees would be accepted.

The parallels with today are only too obvious, as we see the forces of reaction on the rise, and desperate refugees turned back in defiance of international law. No ethnic group is immune from creating tyrannical structures, and this time, one of the new breed of right-wing authoritarian leaders heads a Zionist state. Others quote Christianity (such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin), or Islam (such as Erdoğan). For all of them, racism is a basic tool with which to gather support and deflect frustrations.

No one has ever been able to be complacent about racism, but not so long ago there was a general sense that, in the West at least, things were getting better – and few would have predicted that, almost eighty years after Kristallnacht, eleven Jews would be murdered in an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. This was made even more appalling and alarming by the realisation that this and other racist attacks have been encouraged and stoked by the atmosphere of racism fostered from above.

But there were important messages of hope that came out of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. The congregation was known for the help that they gave to refugees from other countries, whose plight they identified with that of their parents and grandparents; and among the many who demonstrated solidarity and support to the survivors of the massacre were Muslim groups, whose impressive fundraiser for the survivors is as valuable for its human as for its material support. We will only beat racism by taking on the forces that create it – but if anyone dares to suggest it is ‘just human nature’ they need to look at Pittsburgh, and to read this letter by one of the Jewish members of the medical team whose job that day included saving the gunman’s life.