Sept. 22, 2006
Anti-Semitism, then and now
Renowned authors consider Jew-hatred in its most extreme forms.
Krisallnacht: Prelude to Destruction
By Sir Martin Gilbert
HarperCollins, New York, 2006.
314 pages. $28.50
Sir Martin Gilbert, one of the most prolific of contemporary historians,
has turned his sights on that one-day cataclysm of 1938 known as
The Night of Broken Glass, readers know, was the one-night rampage
in Germany against all things Jewish. It marked the passage from
a period of rhetorical anti-Semitism to one of the outright genocidal
violence we now know as the Final Solution. In one night, on Nov.
9-10, 1938, almost every synagogue in Germany 1,000 or so
was set alight. Jewish schools, libraries, museums, books
and Torah scrolls were ruined. Effectively, all Jewish shops and
businesses were destroyed, an undertaking made all the easier by
a law passed in June of that year, requiring Jewish-owned enterprises
to bear signifying markers. Ninety-one Jews were killed that day
and one-quarter of Germany's Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration
Though Kristallnacht was depicted as a spontaneous reaction to the
shooting of a Nazi diplomat in Paris, it was, Gilbert writes, a
"co-ordinated, comprehensive rampage."
Probably emboldened by Neville Chamberlain's capitulation over the
Sudetenland just five weeks earlier, Kristallnacht was a well-orchestrated
assault that erupted almost at the same moment from one side of
Germany to the other, including the annexed Austria. As previously
published by historian Saul Friedlander, Hitler's propagandist,
Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diary that events were set in motion
on his orders. In fact, it was Goebbels who, at 5 p.m., Nov. 10,
issued the order via radio nationwide to halt the attacks, after
which police, who had stood by or participated in the pogrom, "began
to send the sated and exhausted demonstrators home."
Planning was so thorough, Gilbert notes, that, in Bremen, for instance,
fire trucks were on site before the synagogue was alight,
so meticulous were authorities that the fires not spread to Aryan
property. (Most of the few synagogues to survive Kristallnacht did
so because they were too close to non-Jewish facilities.)
The world knew immediately what had happened. Western diplomats
and media correspondents were still in Germany at the time. This,
in fact, seemed part of the Nazis' plan: to make sure that Jews
worldwide saw the "repercussions" of resistance.
In the event that readers misconstrue, as many contemporary observers
do, that the Nazi anti-Semitism was in any way anomalous, Gilbert
reminds us that Martin Luther had written, in 1543, that synagogues
"should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should
be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may be able to
see a cinder or stone of it."
Almost no Jewish community was spared, though three towns saw the
violence stanched by parish priests. While Gilbert is careful to
emphasize individual acts of righteous Germans, the reality and
mystery of Kristallnacht and indeed the entire Nazi phenomenon is
the near-universal enthusiasm among Germans for the enterprise.
London's Daily Telegraph correspondent reported of the events:
"Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete control
of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping
their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class
women held up their babies to see the 'fun.' "
Schoolchildren were provided with bricks by their teachers to aid
in the destruction of anything Jewish.
Jews, who made up a tiny fraction of the German population
0.76 per cent, says Gilbert were scapegoated for every social
and economic evil in the Reich. The Final Solution would be underway
in earnest when Germany invaded Poland, where most of the Jews of
Europe then lived, a few months later. At that time, Western powers
would learn the lessons of appeasement (though, as we watch current
negotiations with Iran, we revisit this issue) and about half a
million European Jews, finally disabused of false hope that civilization
would prevail, fled between Kristallnacht and September 1939, after
which Europe became a constellation of concentration camps.
Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction is one of Gilbert's
many entrees into Holocaust history, so one is moved to ask why
now and what is new? Gilbert's book features 50 previously unpublished
eyewitness accounts and is a thorough-going summary of that dark
day, its meaning and portents. (A local aside: in his acknowledgements,
Sir Martin thanks Dr. Robert Krell, co-founder and still a guiding
light of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.) But Gilbert
is a chronicler in the traditional exercise of the historical discipline,
leaving analysis largely to the reader. So his book's value lies
mostly in the ever-necessary reminder of the potential that exists
in human nature for relatively sudden, race-motivated, orgiastic
violence that consumes a whole society.
The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and
By David Mamet
Nextbook/Schocken, New York, 2006. $26.95
Upon learning that the Pulitzer winning playwright David Mamet has
a book on anti-Semitism coming out this October, one might wonder
what he of Glengarry Glen Ross fame has to say on the subject.
Much, it turns out.
Mamet, whose writing brilliance extends to films, essays and novels,
has produced one of the most insightful, provocative and innovative
works of genius penned on this ancient subject.
The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews is
about Jew-hatred in its various forms self-hatred as well
as externally originating prejudice and just as its title
doesn't quite capture the scope of Mamet's reach, the book's genre
is sometimes beyond categorization. Many of the chapters are extremely
brief ruminations on aspects of race prejudice.
The world hates the Jews, Mamet declares as a thesis.
" 'Why?' is the question for the unaffiliated," he writes,
"for to ask the question, is, in effect, to suggest there is
an answer worthy of consideration. One does not ask of the school
bomber, 'What does he have against small children?'; of Hirohito,
'What did he have against Pearl Harbor?' Neither did the victims
of apartheid or Jim Crow attempt to understand their persecutors.
Neither does the contemporary gay or lesbian attempt to understand
the unreasoning hatred which he or she suffers, and which expresses
itself as right reason.... The effort to combat psychotic prejudice
with reasonable counterarguments is not only an act of folly, but
Much or most of the contemporary animus toward Israel, Mamet argues,
is predicated on irrational hatred of Jews rationalized through
a self-justifying analysis of that country's policies. Israel is
"our lightning rod," he says.
Though some of Mamet's complex and psychosexual theory is directed
at outsiders, he offers a sharp, no-holds-barred critique of Jewish
critics of Israel.
Mamet condemns those who side vehemently against Israel as "apostate
Jews whose denunciation of Israel rises past legitimate debate into
the realm of race treason." He cites the sociologist Eric Hoffer,
who noted the "tendency of the self-aggrandizing to turn on
their own group, seeking notoriety and endorsement for their magnificent
The phenomena of the self-hating Jew and the Jew-hating gentile
are examples of a sort of displaced God-worship, he suggests.
"Each human being has a certain amount of awe which must be
discharged," writes Mamet. "It can only be discharged
through ritual. If he does not engage in religious ritual, the individual
will seek out or invent other avenues for his submission to powers
greater than himself. These rivals include political conventions,
sports rooting or celebrity worship ... But every obeisance, performance
or sacrifice the apostate finds irrational or ludicrous in religion
will be found, under another name, in his daily life. The apostate
might balk at consulting a rabbi as he might a soothsayer, but finds
it logical to consult with an economist counsellor or 'life coach.'
He may scoff at the notion of evil spirits or evil inclination,
but participates with a therapist in an ongoing ceremony centred
around the belief that constant attendance and a ritual recitation
of his wrongs will (in some unnameable, never-to-be-tested way)
stave off some unnameable catastrophe...."
But, despite the title, much of the book is about the phenomenon
of anti-Semitism among non-Jews and in this worn topic Mamet manages
to assemble dazzling perceptions that will be new to many readers.
Race hatred against Jews, blacks and others often
has roots in repressed sexuality, he suggests. The "insatiable"
black man of American lore is the most obvious example, but in anti-Semitism,
Mamet sees a manifestation of perverse sadism and masochism the
complexity of which can not be fairly summarized in a short review.
But this juxtaposition is evidenced partly through the success of
popular depictions of the Shoah, he argues:
"... [H]olocaust films are 'Mandingo for Jews,' and ... the
thrill, for the audience, came and comes from a protected indulgence
of anti-Semitism: they get to see us killed and to explain to themselves
that they feel bad about it."
Prejudice at its most blatant is often invisible for the very reason
that it is in plain sight. The incredible intellectual process required
to justify Palestinian terror is an example of a predisposition
to believe Jews deserve their fate, or bring it upon themselves.
"The bombings of southern black churches could and can under
no possible ethical system be excused," Mamet writes. "These
crimes can, by rational beings, be considered nothing other than
monstrous murder. But the bombings of Jews in Israel by terrorists
suggest, to otherwise rational minds, that 'the other side deserves
a fair hearing.' "
The irrationality of this position is in starkest evidence when
the truth of the 20th century is expressed in its simplest construction:
"The Jewish state has offered the Arab world peace since 1948;
it has received war and slaughter, and the rhetoric of annihilation."
Mamet's magnificent book, which comes out next month, should be
required reading for all with an interest in subjects ranging from
the Israeli-Arab conflict to social psychology, theology and human
nature. Perhaps the greatest condemnation in this condemnatory book
is Mamet's succinct debunking of contemporary human self-satisfied
"Man," he writes, "is a constantly, irremediably,
deeply superstitious creature no man more than he who is
assured of his absolute rationality."
Pat Johnson is editor of MVOX Multicultural Digest, www.mvox.ca.