Not by accident does the glass shatter no more

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.

Menachem begin giving speech 370 (photo credit: gpo)
Menachem begin giving speech 370
(photo credit: gpo)
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 began.
One thousand synagogues were destroyed in this outburst of venom.
Seven thousand Jewish businesses were attacked, and 91 Jews were killed.
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.
FOUR YEARS 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 Jewry.
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 something.
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 British.
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.
But 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.
SEVENTY-FIVE 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.
Begin was 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.
When 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 Begin.
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 mass destruction.
Begin was pilloried and in some ways his reputation has still not recovered, but he changed the way the entire Jewish world thinks about protecting itself.
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.