We woke up this morning to a Kristallnacht anniversary unlike any other. Many historians believe that the pogrom of November 9, 1938, the night when Jewish businesses and houses of worship all over Germany were shattered by Nazi hooligans, paved the way for the Holocaust that followed. Some say it gave license to the overt racism that fueled the Nazi machine, making the mass murder of Jews inevitable.
The irony of this timing is too juicy to miss, as hate groups today are celebrating across the globe. And we wonder, what has become inevitable now?
My answer: nothing.
There is no silver lining to be found in what has transpired; but, foolish idealist that I am, I grasp for some slivers of silver that someday might be sewn into a lining. It’s what I do. As a rabbi, in my dual role as one who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, today is a day to focus on the comforting. So, while straining to avoid Panglossian banalities, I grope (which, like “trump,” is not a verb I’ll ever comfortably use again) for some slivers to offer, without disregarding or downplaying the well-documented dangers that a Trump presidency offers.
And the best that I can say is that nothing is inevitable, that past is not prologue. Just as November 9, 1938 did not have to lead directly to Auschwitz, neither is that unique historical moment a prototype for what we are experiencing now. Today is decidedly not “Kristallnacht: The Sequel.”
It’s of small comfort, I suppose, that the most positive message I can muster is that when I woke up this morning, no Brownshirts had ransacked my synagogue. But if we begin with the premise that present is prologue, today is not Kristallnacht II, nor even November 9. Today is Day One. The best way to prevent the apocalyptic scenarios envisioned of a Trump presidency is not to assume that they are inevitable and fall into a fetal position, but to work steadfastly to prevent those scenarios from being realized, day by day, one foot in front of the other. If we do that, things will be far from perfect, but we still stand a chance of leaving this world a little better than we found it.
When we shackle ourselves to historical precedent, we fail to be prepared for the surprises that the world presents to us every day. Hence the foolish reliance of Democrats on their 2012 playbook and their supposedly unbreakable Maginot Line of Rust Belt states. While we should study history to avoid repeating mistakes, we shouldn’t assume that any precedent will automatically be prescient, as every pollster learned last night.
Some more slivers of silver:
• Before we pack our bags for Canada and bemoan the racism and misogyny of America, recall that many of the same voters who elected Trump voted for Obama twice. Sooner, we can hope, rather than later, these same Americans will be out to drain yet another swamp.
• Before we assume that the end is nigh for basic human rights, recall that when the Supreme Court passed marriage equality, Justice Scalia was alive and kicking. It’s not hard to imagine the damage the new President will try to do, but it’s hard to see him successfully accomplishing it.
• Despite what we’ve seen, love still trumps hate. Before we assume that America is on its way to becoming a more brutish society, where bullies will routinely prey on the enfeebled, we can be grateful that a culture of kindness can still be promoted on the local level and by each of us individually. The power of the states, so brazenly championed by conservatives, will now provide some solace for those living in places where such a culture of kindness is championed. States can mitigate some of the damage to our planet too.
• Mexico notwithstanding (because that wall will never be built) the wall that will matter most over the next four years is that hallowed wall of separation between religion and state. I believe it will continue to stand tall. That wall is what prevented me from officially endorsing a candidate in this race, and there were moments when it was pure torture not to scream in rage at the horrors I was witnessing. But it forced me to be more disciplined in my message and to focus on areas where I could be more constructive. While everyone in Blue State America was railing in the echo chambers of the Internet about Trump’s racism, the Trump voters were watching Fox. Were I to have climbed aboard that train, my voice would have just been one more among the millions in an echo chamber that only one side was hearing.
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Instead, on Rosh Hashanah, rather than railing about one candidate’s racist statements, I spoke very personally about racism. Yes, there were clear allusions to the campaign but I focused more on what has been endemic to our society for a long time and how each of us can combat it. As a result, my message resonated on both sides of the aisle and I maintained a credibility that comes from at least trying to be non-partisan. At a time of such intense heat, someone needs to stand above the fray and shine some light. My congregants had no doubt where I stood, but were appreciative of my efforts to “go high” when so many were “going low.”
Thanks to that wall of separation, my role – and that of my clergy colleagues – has never been more important. In the short term we need to comfort the afflicted and continue to act as agents of healing. But over the coming months and years, we’ll need to continue to be the clear voices of conscience.
So I have no instant feel-good panacea to offer on this Kristallnacht, except that it is not Kristallnacht.
It’s Day One, and together, one foot after another, we will need to summon our wits and compassion to face an unknown future that is still ours to determine.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, a frequent contributor, is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.