Seventy-five years ago this week, German Jews – who had long assumed that they
were as secure as Jews in Europe could ever be – watched their shops, synagogues
and homes being destroyed in an outpouring of hate. Matters would get infinitely
worse for German Jewry, but it was on November 9-10, 1938, that the shockwaves
One thousand synagogues were destroyed in this outburst of
Seven thousand Jewish businesses were attacked, and 91 Jews were
The devastation would grow infinitely worse, of course, but at
the time, it seemed unfathomable.
Yet Kristallnacht will go unmentioned
in many Jewish communities this year. It will pass unmarked because young Jews
have “Holocaust fatigue.” It will slide by unnoticed because in our historical
consciousness (or lack thereof), Kristallnacht is ancient history – it occurred
exactly half as long ago as the American Civil War (150 years ago was 1863).
Could anything that happened that long ago still be urgent for Jews today?
Actually, yes. Because what is worth remembering is not only the horror of what
transpired, but how much has changed. The world’s reaction was vehement, but
also useless. The US recalled its ambassador, but notably, did not sever
diplomatic relations. The British approved the Kindertransport program – which,
though motivated by humanitarian instincts, severed families and tacitly
acknowledged that the world would not save Europe’s Jews. What began to shift,
even if too slowly, was a Jewish sense of how to respond.
later, a little-known but extraordinary impromptu meeting took place in Tel
Aviv. It was the end of 1942, and Yechiel Kadishai, who would one day become
Menachem Begin’s personal secretary, was a young man – like many of the young
Jewish men in the Yishuv – serving in the British Army. Stationed in Ismailia,
Kadishai was given a furlough of several days and returned to Tel Aviv. There,
the Yishuv was receiving the first incontrovertible indications that Hitler was
exterminating the Jews of Poland.
Kadishai attended a meeting with other
young Jewish men to discuss what they could do to help save Polish
It was a bit of an audacious – and unrealistic – agenda for a
group of such young men, but there was a sense that they simply had to do
In the middle of the meeting, Kadishai recalled, a man in his
twenties, wearing short pants and glasses with small, round frames, entered the
room and sat quietly at the side. In the middle of the discussion, the late
arrival spoke up and said that there was only one thing that Jews in Palestine
could do to save Polish Jewry.
The answer was not to parachute Yishuv
fighters into Europe (an idea that had been suggested at the meeting) or to try
to influence world opinion. Counterintuitive though it may have been, to save
Poles from Germans, he said, Jews in Palestine had to attack the
The British had to be forced to open the gates of Palestine, so
that Polish Jews would know that there was somewhere to go. So long as Jews knew
that they had nowhere run, there would be no impetus for them to flee Poland,
the latecomer said.
Hitler had not yet gotten to Hungarian or Romanian
Jewry, and even if it was too late for Polish Jewry, the others could be saved.
They just needed a place to go.
The meeting ended inconclusively, but as
they were departing, Kadishai – who had been struck by the audacity of the man
who’d joined the meeting late – asked a friend who it was who had spoken up
about the British. “He was the head of Betar in Poland,” Kadishai’s friend told
him. “He was imprisoned by the Soviets, and eventually made his way here. His
name is Begin.”
Not long thereafter, Menachem Begin would be given the
reins of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi and would declare The Revolt against the British.
The Irgun’s attacks on British targets would be relentless, and many of them –
like the hanging of two British sergeants and the bombing of the King David
Hotel – would arouse the fury of the international Jewish community.
The Revolt, despite its moral complexity, worked. Though the British were
influenced by many factors, seven months after the bombing of the King David
Hotel, they announced that they were departing Palestine. Ten months after that,
the United Nations voted to create the State of Israel.
years after the Night of Shattered Glass, it’s worth reflecting on how much has
changed, not only in the world (though there are obviously worrisome signs like
the Jobbik party in Hungary), but among Jews themselves.
vilified for his attacks, but even his most passionate opponents in Israeli
politics and in the Jewish world ultimately internalized his worldview that Jews
sometimes needed to take extraordinary action to defend themselves.
Israel launched the 1956 Sinai Campaign (an operation which convinced many
American observers that the 1947-49 victory had not been a fluke, and that
Israel was in the Middle East to stay), prime minister David Ben-Gurion was
reflecting the values he unwittingly – or perhaps unhappily – had learned from
When Levi Eshkol gave the approval to strike Egypt instead of
waiting to be attacked in 1967, it was a Labor (Alignment) prime minister
(heading a unity government) acting on the worldview of Jabotinsky and Begin,
once his nemeses.
When Ehud Olmert destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor
in 2007, he was continuing the Begin Doctrine, which had asserted ever since
1981 that no mortal enemy of Israel’s would be permitted to acquire a weapon of
Begin was pilloried and in some ways his reputation has
still not recovered, but he changed the way the entire Jewish world thinks about
There will be those this year who say, “Enough.
Seventy-five years was a long time ago, and it is time to move on.” That is true
in many ways, but not if “moving on” means forgetting how much has changed about
our own sense of our responsibility for our own destiny.
The mere fact
that young Jews take so utterly for granted the fact that Jews have the right,
the obligation and the capacity to defend themselves attests to how much has
changed since the night that the glass shattered.
A century after Begin
was born, we owe it to him – and to ourselves – to thank him again, to pause to
reflect on what we’ve learned and on how far we have come since Jews stood by
stunned, with no idea of how to respond. The writer is senior vice president,
Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Shalem
College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His forthcoming
biography of Menachem Begin is titled
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s
Soul, and will be published by Nextbook in March.
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