Dear TEE community,
During my recent time off, I had a chance to catch up on some of the reading and watching on my To Do list. Among these was seeing the Ken Burns documentary on The US and the Holocaust. I can imagine that those of you who have had a chance to see it were as moved, angered, and distressed as I was by the time I finished. There were many topics it raised that are worthy of consideration and discussion but there were several that stood out for me because they touched on contemporary issues with which many of us are grappling.
First, was the clarity with which the filmmakers illustrated the Nazi policy of “testing the waters” – evaluating which actions would draw a negative response and which provoked little or no pushback. Thus, the overt violence and disorder of the November Pogrom (or Kristallnacht) in 1938 was not repeated because the German public made it clear they did not want to actually witness such public disruption. Of course, this did not mean that the antisemitism lessened, just that it was done more covertly – e.g., roundups were made at night or businesses were confiscated rather than destroyed. I can’t help but compare that to our American political environment where increasingly outrageous statements, conspiracy theories, and even physical attacks on our elected officials seem to have no real consequence. What concerns me is not the belief that our current situation is as dire as 1930s Germany, but that there may not be the public will to prevent another type of authoritarianism taking root here.
This, in turn, leads to a question perhaps most, if not all, Jews ask themselves: “How do we know when it’s time to leave?” I think the film did an excellent job of demonstrating how, by the time it became evident that Nazi antisemitism would go far beyond discrimination, it was mostly impossible to escape. I know this issue was in the mind of a number of our congregants after the 2016 Presidential elections and I have been somewhat surprised by the number of people who have mentioned to me in the past few months that they make sure their passports are valid and readily accessible.
Finally, I was struck by the survivors’ pain and surprise at being ignored, harassed, and physically attacked by their neighbors and individuals they had considered to be their friends. After reading The Diary of Anne Frank as a child, I briefly thought about which of my friends would hide me, but it was not a subject I spent a lot of time on until more recently, when events once again have made me question who would stand up for American (or other) Jews.
I don’t want to sound overly pessimistic or hopeless but I think these issues represent a background level of anxiety that many American Jews are experiencing right now, especially as we are faced with the depth and extent of antisemitism in this country (another topic the documentary did a good job of illustrating). And I think it is important for us to share our thoughts about this as a community.
During our Shabbat services this Friday, as we observe the 84th anniversary of the November Pogrom, we will have the opportunity to discuss what we’re thinking about our current situation as American Jews and how we might work together to find hopeful answers to these difficult questions. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
with all good wishes,
Rabbi Drorah Setel