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As November election approaches, we can learn a lesson from Kristallnacht

The 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous "Night of Broken Glass," is Nov. 9 and 10. Kristallnacht is a harsh reminder of the anti-Jewish violence that rocked Germany, occupied Austria and areas of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia.

{mprestriction ids="1"}Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed and Jewish homes, businesses and cemeteries were looted and vandalized. Thirty thousand Jewish men and boys were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Repressive Nazi leaders convinced subordinates and the public to participate in these convulsive attacks. Nazi regional leaders dispatched orders for mass destruction to the state police, storm troopers (SA) and the Hitler Youth (HJ). No opportunity existed for dissent or opposing arguments. The events of Kristallnacht, as a consequence, systematically destroyed Jewish lives.

Kristallnacht can provide a valuable lesson in our own time. It is a mistake to assume that a society must be controlled by a repressive dictatorship to target a vulnerable minority group. The integrity of a democracy can be destroyed by a number of factors including anxious reactivity, group think, displaced blame, a quick fix attitude and weak leaders.

Anxious reactivity occurs when individuals respond with unwarranted intensity to events and to others. Intense reactivity forces everyone into a miasma of pessimism and narrow perspectives. 

"Group think" occurs when citizens are pressured to think alike. These pressures suppress opposing opinions and fear develops in challenging majority opinions. The pressure to think alike defeats thinking independently. Group think reinforces the selfish demands of rancorous organizations, even as those groups take actions to abuse the rights of others. When a rancorous group refuses to solve or "own" its problems, it rushes to put the blame outside itself, usually on a vulnerable minority group.

Displaced blame can be assigned to a vulnerable minority group, which is thought to be the source of imagined problems like economic disaster, racial inferiority, false faith or social ills. Frequently, minority groups are forced into scapegoat positions.

Quick fixes or knee jerk reactions relieve the immediate stress created by a problem but do not solve it. Quick fixes categorically defeat attempts to produce long-term stability in a society. 

Weak leaders contribute to oppressing a society as decisively as any dictator. "Rabbi Edwin Friedman has written that weak leaders acquiesce to demands of rancorous groups." Weak leaders cater to the demands for quick fixes to complex problems and they move indecisively from crisis to crisis. 

These factors taken together can produce a society in which all vulnerable minority groups are at risk. Consequently, vulnerable minority groups can be attacked falsely with laws written to deny them civil liberties.

What kind of leaders will give us civil hope? Those leaders who have solid beliefs and values that guarantee civil liberties for all. Those leaders who possess independent and purposeful thinking are leaders with strong leadership characteristics. Leaders with these characteristics meet challenges by making tough decisions to achieve the goal of long-term stability. Tough decisions are made in bold contrast to peace-at-all-costs or easy answers to appease opposition in the short term. We need leaders who stand up to obdurate groups and even to their own followers who try to undermine them.

Our prophet Moses possessed strong leadership characteristics. Moses was persistent despite the strong opposition from the Israelites for change. He exhibited stamina in the face of sabotage by his followers. He relied on his strengths, accepted responsibilities and challenged the Israelites to do the same. Moses’ encouragement, "be strong and resolute," can guide us now. In this election year, we must apply our own solid values to protect the integrity of American democracy. The November elections and legislative sessions that follow are opportunities for us to participate with purposeful actions.

Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. is a member of the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission and a member of Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka, Kan..  Her commentary is based on "The Staying Power of Anti-Semitism and a Possible Explanation for Its Resilience," which she gives at speaking engagements.{/mprestriction}