A few weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor, a fire destroyed the Reichstag Building in Berlin on February 27, 1933. Who set the fire? Their identity has been in dispute ever since.
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Several communist activists were arrested, and all but one were exonerated in the courts. Was that one person responsible? Was it more? Or was it actually members of the Nazi party themselves?
What is unquestionable is that Adolf Hitler used the fire to sign into law the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which suspended many civil liberties in Weimar Germany, including freedom of expression, free press, freedom of association, habeas corpus, and the right to various forms of privacy in media like the mail system and the telephone. Anti-Nazi publications were banned. Hitler asked President Hindenburg to use Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to establish the decree. Hitler used Germany’s own constitution to cripple its democracy.
Germany was in the grip of the fear of a communist takeover. Hitler used this fear to sow panic. Nazi-leaning newspapers fanned flames of anti-Communism. Thousands of German citizens were arrested under the pretense of “state security,” and Hitler suppressed any political parties that might challenge the rise of the Nazis. When the next election took place on March 5, 1933, the Nazis and their supporters won a majority share of the vote, allowing the passage of “The Enabling Act” on March 23, 1933, that made Hitler dictator of Germany. All this change took place fewer than 30 days after the Reichstag Fire.
The use of fear to limit civil liberties is an all-too-common phenomenon. Democracies are fragile institutions, and some leaders play on people’s legitimate fears to justify eliminating their civil liberties as a ruse to grab power.
I have been the senior rabbi of a downtown Manhattan synagogue since 1992. I lived through the attacks of 9/11 close up. I watched the towers fall and within weeks watched as a moment of universal international support and love washed over us in NYC. I remember getting teary-eyed as tulip bulbs donated by the Dutch were planted all over the city.
Too quickly, we lost that international sympathy as the United States used the attacks to justify the suspension of individual American civil liberties, to promulgate fictions about weapons of mass destruction, and to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity – wars that continue today. When will we learn?
In Masha Gessen’s brilliant book about Vladimir Putin (The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, 2012), she describes Putin’s manipulation of terror attacks in the former Soviet Union to justify his consolidation of power over an increasingly fearful populace. In some cases, the Putin regime tailored its response to genuine terror attacks in ways that would actually increase Russian civilian suffering; and in other cases, it is speculated that Putin’s regime engineered the attacks themselves.
Based on a global rise of terrorism that claims to be waged in the name of Islam, I fear that it is likely that we will see another act of violent terrorism on American soil. My question is: how will we respond when it happens? Overwhelmingly, most acts of violence in this country are committed by non-Muslims. Nonetheless, many politicians exploit the fear of Muslims as a way to enact draconian anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim laws, proclaim falsely simplistic solutions to complex problems and divert attention from the government’s venal behavior.
When will our February 27, 1933 be? When is our Reichstag Fire coming? How will we react when the next terrorist attack happens? Will our fear make us vulnerable to the cynical manipulations of the Trump Administration? Will we fall for their evasive tricks and “alternative facts,” or will we be able to see through their charades and seek real solutions to the real problems in our world?
In the past months, political scenarios that previously seemed totally inconceivable have materialized. The trend of anti-democratic assaults that Trump has successfully enacted so far foreshadows a full dictatorial tyranny, and we must be ready for it.
The chief executive of our nation is very likely waiting for a terrorist attack to happen as an opportunity to take over our democratic institutions. We members of civil society must make sure that our emotional reaction to whatever happens doesn't give him the power to eradicate our democracy.
We mustn’t be fooled; his seizing control will do nothing to make us safer. Not only are Trump’s current attacks on Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants unlikely to block terrorism, they make a terrorist attack more probable. Not only are his executive orders immoral and unjustifiable, they make America less safe and less secure. Instead of empowering moderate voices in the Islamic/Arab world, the administration’s policies only foster more hatred and violence among the most radical elements.
As Chemi Shalev recently wrote: "Trump and the terrorists.... have perverse common interests. Each serves as a recruitment center for the other. When Trump rails against dangerous Muslim hordes... he is making radical Islam’s argument that the United States is fundamentally hostile to Islam. Conversely, when the terrorists grow stronger... and carry out, god forbid, successful terror attacks, fearful Americans are bound to ditch moderation and to embrace Trump’s simplistic, black and white, all or nothing, no middle ground views."
Donald Trump is following a pattern we know well from both historical and current events around the world: Rulers whose grip on their population is weak often go to war, scapegoat minorities, or exploit events as means of diverting attention from their own corruption, venality, governmental incompetence and/or plans to consolidate power.
To prevent the tyranny that Trump is fostering through fear of others, we must stand up in protest. We must build strong bridges of love.
Here is how our synagogue in New York is taking action: We go to a local mosque every Friday to stand outside of their Jumma prayer service, carrying signs of support and love. Members of the mosque community, in turn, are coming to us and experiencing Kabbalat Shabbat services for the first time. Our communities are getting to know each other by name and by face. As a rabbi, I want members of my community to know Muslims personally and to harness the power of deep connection in order to resist the lies and manipulation that Trump will use when - and there will very likely be a when - a terror attack happens.
I don’t know when our February 27, 1933 will be. But I know how we need to prepare and how we need to react.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is Senior Rabbi at Manhattan's Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.