Health care reform politics and Kristallnacht 2010

There was a joke that used to go around about a golf game involving entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.  Another player asked his handicap, and Davis replied “I’m a Jewish black man with one eye; how much more handicap do I need?”
This came to mind when I read the New York Times story about President Obama’s White House Seder.  It was surprisingly moving for a non-observant Jew to learn of the President’s observance of one of our rituals.  But as a Jew, I’m also slightly–and less surprisingly–alarmed on the President’s behalf.  People already accuse him of being a Muslim non-citizen; how much more handicap does he need?

It’s illuminating, though, to consider the President an honorary or metaphorical Jew, because it highlights the parallels between the hysteria attaching to Obama’s presidency and the hysteria recurrently directed at Jews.  What’s the difference between Sarah Palin’s claim that the President will operate death panels to kill her disabled child, and the classic blood libel that Jews kill Christian babies and use their blood to make matzoh?  Only the most ignorant and fearful among us could possibly believe such nonsense, and yet time and again scapegoating has worked because people have believed it and sought to eliminate imaginary threats by killing real people.

And now the President’s opponents have adopted another tactic from the anti-Semites’ playbook.  There’s already been way too much talk about Nazis in the course of debating the Affordable Care Act. But when a political group’s response to legislation comes in the form of coordinated window-smashing, only the willfully forgetful can fail to think “Kristallnacht.”

That’s the night the Nazis expressed their disappointment at a political setback by going on a simultaneous rampage all over Germany: killing Jews, beating them, setting fire to their homes and, most memorably, breaking 7500 windows of Jewish-owned shops.  The current incidents of vandalism against the offices of Congresspeople who voted for the Affordable Care Act aren’t remotely comparable in scale to that night in 1938, but they’re precisely comparable in purpose.   And the sound of breaking glass is the last thing you hear before reasoned political debate is drowned out entirely, and with it genuine self-government.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is apparently among the willfully forgetful.  His response to the outbreak of violence among those who share his political positions was to claim that he, too, had been the target of political violence and–more important–to blame the Democrats for making public what had occurred. In other words, he claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Consider, if you would, the Wikipedia account of Kristallnacht’s aftermath:

More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps . . . . After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion reichsmarks.

In other words, the Nazis claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the people who broke campaign-office windows are actual Nazis, or that their doing so had anything to do with anti-Semitism or Jews.  The fact that Kristallnacht was organized and the latest nonsense mostly not is a big difference, as is the fact that Kristallnacht had official sanction while the window-breaking doesn’t. Everything that happens isn’t about Nazis or Jews.

Being Jewish nonetheless provides a useful set of historical sense memories, and the sound of glass splintering on sidewalks is one of them.

In the early 1930s, plenty of people on the respectable German right disdained the low-class National Socialists.  They were a tool, that’s all, useful temporarily for cowing and marginalizing liberalism so the respectable right could regain political power.  By the time the respectable German right figured out that the Nazi tiger couldn’t be ridden, the whole country was already inside.

So who on the respectable American right will be the first to condemn wholeheartedly our current eruption of far-right thuggery? Apparently it won’t be John Boehner, who undercut his own criticism of the attacks by describing them as the natural result of insupportable Democratic provocation.   It won’t be Sarah Palin, who like her anti-choice allies routinely identifies opponents as “enemies” and “targets,” and like them will doubtless pretend to be surprised when someone gets murdered.   And it won’t be Eric Cantor, though as the highest-ranking Jew in the Republican caucus he might be expected to remember history and hope not to repeat it.

So is there anyone left in the Republican Party to speak out, or are they all too busy hoping the Tea Partiers don’t come for them?

Stay tuned.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

28 thoughts on “Health care reform politics and Kristallnacht 2010”

  1. You can add Jonah Goldberg to your list of the willingly forgetful. Today's column (Google Jonah Goldberg Kristallnacht) is a call-out to anyone who would compare this round of glass-breaking to Kristallnacht. So I guess he isn't being willingly forgetful, he's just disingenuous.

  2. Cantor claimed victimization because he'd been victimized. There's even someone in federal custody right now, charged with federal felonies. But other than that, Cantor is just like the Nazis.

    Disgusting. If I were Cantor, I know I'd find that hard to forgive.

  3. Kelly Kleiman and Thomas are both right about Cantor, because they refer to different incidents. Cantor stated a falsehood about a bullet fired in the air having been aimed at his office. Norman Leboon did threaten to kill Cantor.

  4. There is nothing objectionable in this post as such, but it is still a Godwin's Law violation. (I am referring to the normative form of the law, i.e., No matter how a propos the situation and how carefully focused and nuanced the comparison, the total social costs of comparing something to Nazi Germany always outweigh the benefits unless you are talking about Pol Pot.)

  5. "But when a political group’s response to legislation comes in the form of coordinated window-smashing, only the willfully forgetful can fail to think “Kristallnacht.”"

    Can't argue with that.

  6. Henry, no. Cantor said that he'd been threatened, and that a window in his Richmond office had been shot through. The threat Cantor referred to said "You’re an abomination, you receive my bullets in your office, remember they will be placed in your heads. You and your children are Lucifer’s abomination.” The threat also made reference to Cantor's Judaism. Whether or not Cantor was correct to believe that the bullet in his office was related to the threat which referred to a bullet in his office, surely if he was mistaken it was a justifiable mistake. And for someone to minimize what happened to Cantor and try to turn it to suggest that Cantor was acting just like the Nazis after Kristallnacht is perverse and hateful. It's an absurd inversion of the truth, driven by a twisted and ugly little mind.

  7. May I suggest to Thomas that he can disagree strongly with anyone else's views without accusing them of having a 'twisted and ugly little mind'? That is the tactic of the tea partiers and more and more of right-wing America (see Ms Kleiman's comments about Ms Palin among others), and it would be better for discussion if the tactic were avoided here.

  8. John G, you might notice the context here, which is that Ms Kleiman has accused Rep. Cantor–a Jew subject this week to antisemitic attacks–of being just like the Nazis. I think my response is relatively tame in comparison, but perhaps you think that being called a Nazi in ordinary circumstances (much less the circumstances Cantor finds himself in) is an agreeable argumentative tactic likely to lead to good discussions.

  9. WRT Cantor, he did not know about the guy who is in custody at the time he made the statement, and his description of the bullet hole in the window was hugely fanciful. He wasn't described as being "just like the Nazis", he was described as falsely claiming victimization while blaming the actual victims. Based on the information he had at the time, the description is accurate.

    WRT to "will doubtless pretend to be surprised when someone gets murdered," why the future tense? The person who shot up the Unitarian church a year or so ago was quite specific about that fact that the target had been chosen because most Unitarians are liberals and because he didn't think he could get past liberal officials' security to shoot them. He was also quite specific about the fact he was inspired by the work of Bernie Goldberg and Bill O'Reilly among others (Glen Beck having not yet become prominent). The murder of George Tiller was also a political execution. That ship has sailed, although the body count is no doubt not yet complete.

  10. **The fact that Kristallnacht was organized and the latest nonsense mostly not is a big difference, as is the fact that Kristallnacht had official sanction while the window-breaking doesn’t. Everything that happens isn’t about Nazis or Jews.**

    As the famous right-wing trouble maker Emily Littella would say…"Oh, Never Mind!"

  11. I do not find on samefacts a similar condemnation of window-breaking and violence from the other side.

    I do not find a Tea Party connection here. That seems more emotive and associative than factual.

    References to Kristallnacht would be risible if they were not chilling. Trying to backpedal and saying "oh, I didn't mean anything like that really" is sneaky.

    If you are going to claim historical perspective on the basis of being Jewish, then it would help to actually show some.

    I am confident that the proverbial Man from Mars, who did not bring emotional associations to the table and had to have each piece of the accusation presented on its own merit, would be unconvinced – even puzzled – at what you say here.

  12. Maybe a little History needs to be remembered???

    Rabbi Philip R. Alstat, an early leader of Conservative Judaism, known for his fiery rhetoric and powerful oratory skills, wrote and spoke in 1939 about the power of the Passover story during the rise of Nazi persecution and terror:

    "Perhaps in our generation the counsel of our Talmudic sages may seem superfluous, for today the story of our enslavement in Egypt is kept alive not only by ritualistic symbolism, but even more so by tragic realism. We are the contemporaries and witnesses of its daily re-enactment. Are not our hapless brethren in the German Reich eating "the bread of affliction"? Are not their lives embittered by complete disenfranchisement and forced labor? Are they not lashed mercilessly by brutal taskmasters behind the walls of concentration camps? Are not many of their men-folk being murdered in cold blood? Is not the ruthlessness of the Egyptian Pharaoh surpassed by the sadism of the Nazi dictators?

    And yet, even in this hour of disaster and degradation, it is still helpful to "visualize oneself among those who had gone forth out of Egypt." It gives stability and equilibrium to the spirit. Only our estranged kinsmen, the assimilated, and the de-Judaized, go to pieces under the impact of the blow….But those who visualize themselves among the groups who have gone forth from the successive Egypts in our history never lose their sense of perspective, nor are they overwhelmed by confusion and despair…. It is this faith, born of racial experience and wisdom, which gives the oppressed the strength to outlive the oppressors and to endure until the day of ultimate triumph when we shall "be brought forth from bondage unto freedom, from sorrow unto joy, from mourning unto festivity, from darkness unto great light, and from servitude unto redemption."

    I don't see " making your congressman answer hard questions mentioned. More like "…never lose their sense of perspective, nor are they overwhelmed by confusion and despair.." OK?

  13. Leftists in Berkeley smash windows and set fires. You shrug. Leftists drop sandbags on elderly people in buses at the Republican convention, sending them to the hospital. You shrug.

    A few windows are broken, and it's morally equivalent to rounding up Moms and their babies, depriving them of water or a bathroom, and then killing them.

    Mr. Obama himself said, "If you bring a knife to a fight, we'll bring a gun". That was nice.

  14. "Them Jews aren't going to let him talk to me. I told my baby daughter, that he'll talk to me in five years when he's a lame duck, or in eight years when he's out of office," Wright said, according to Virginia's Daily Press. "They will not let him … talk to somebody who calls a spade what it is."

    My Christian Conservative friends would never, in a million years, say that. I've never heard a word of anti-semitism from any Christian pastor of any Christian church I've been to in 35 years.

    I guess I need to get out more so I can learn to feel the hate.

  15. Kelly Kleiman–SRSLY?

    The only appropriate response to you here is laughter.

    Enjoy your paranoia!

    A hahhahhh hhaaaaahhhhaaa!

  16. Cantor is not just the highest ranking Jew in the Republican congressional caucus. He is the only one.

    Thomas Cantor claimed he was victimized *before* he learned of the actual threat which resulted in the arrest.

    The same lunatic who threatened him previously threatened Barack Obama among others.

    Cantor claimed he was a victim because a randomly fired bullet broke a window in a building where he has an unmarked office. His defense against the charge that he was falsely claiming to be a victim is that he didn't check the facts before making his public claim. I repeat that's his line.

  17. I read some idiotic posts over the years, but this one is going into the scrapbook in the "irony of the incommensurate" folder.

    To think that some one could write this drivel and believe it amazing, as well as an explanation for the hysterical, farcical, and false attempts to paint tea party folks as racist knuckle-draggers.

  18. "as well as an explanation for the hysterical, farcical, and false attempts to paint tea party folks as racist knuckle-draggers."

    It's become a deeply ingrained habit on the left to accuse foes of being racist. In some cases it's just silly, it reaches into bizarre territory when thrown at opponents of affirmative action, who are protesting racial discrimination and championing equal treatment under the law.

    In some cases it's clearly a conscious tactic, such as the recent claim by some members of the black caucus to have had racial epithets thrown at them during a walk through a tea party gathering, which they present no evidence of despite having filmed the walk from multiple angles.

    In other cases, I think it's a result of what I call the "include file"; A programing term for a file that's automatically appended to a program being compiled. Liberals often have deeply held prejudices concerning the nature of their opponents, to the point where they ignore the fact that the evidence frequently doesn't support those prejudicial.

    Haven't decided which category Mark falls into, but he's clearly a member of one.

  19. And, yeah, I exhibit some of that problem from time to time. Thing about the pot calling the kettle black, is that while the pot might be black, it's not wrong about the kettle…

  20. "it’s not wrong about the kettle…"

    Presumably. You certainly can claim whatever it is you want to claim – about yourself or of others. Trying to substantiate claims is another matter entirely; as your effort (or lack thereof) to do so is demonstrating.

  21. Derek – So… every commenter on every blog must rehash all the evidence or you feel free to disdain to engage them? Nice. The original accusations were made by members of the black caucus. The evidence they provided was their own testimony – which has some value, certainly. Attempts to nail that down further resulted in posted video of considerable ambiguity. The videos not only did not give additional support to their claims, they somewhat undermined them. Are you expecting me to provide you with a set of links to help you locate one of the most common-viewed and discussed topics of the past two weeks?

    If you were referring instead to Cantor's original claim of victimization on slender evidence, and using "pot" as a collective for Republicans/conservatives/generalised opponents, then my only complaint is that you deliver against Brett an accusation that he bears no responsibility for; a stereotype.

    But I suspect you were instead using a rather standard (though evasive) rhetorical device of requiring opponents to exhaustively prove all their points while you chip at them. That is perhaps an intelligent way to argue with someone in a public forum, to seek to score points rather than make any attempt to mutually arrive at the truth. But in a discussion with others it is a rudeness that borders on dishonesty, as it twists the rules of civilised discourse.

  22. "So… every commenter on every blog must rehash all the evidence or you feel free to disdain to engage them? Nice. "

    Yeah, thats exactly what I said. Points for honesty go up on the board for you…

    "It’s become a deeply ingrained habit on the left to accuse foes of being racist." Thats a pretty bloated, albeit general, claim. He points to the black caucus members that you rightly point out as ambiguous (for either judgement).

    He then talks about evidence (which he's poorly demonstrated) while then accusing others of falling into his imaginary categories of racism and prejudice. Again, pot calling the kettle black (I'd also argue a very transparent projection). This is race-baiting at worst, misleading at least.

    That you defend this kind of garbage in an attempt to call for civil discourse is something I'd be more inclined to be surprised by if it weren't for your alias.

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