11/09/2011 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

Considering Collective Responsibility Through the Lens of Kristallnacht

Judaism has a multitude of remembrance days commemorating tragedies in our history. Most are centuries if not millennia old, but there are a few dates on the Jewish calendar that commemorate recent events. Kristallnacht, observed every Nov. 9, is one of these.

Kristallnacht, called the "Night of Broken Glass" because of the extensive destruction caused, is often thought to commemorate the start of the Holocaust. This is only half true. The anti-Jewish riots across Germany and Austria on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, resulted in the implementation of significantly stricter anti-Semitic laws that paved the way to the Holocaust and engaged the German citizenry in anti-Semitic attacks. On that night, the Nazi Party organized unofficial riots targeting Jews and their property. The riots destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, included the arrest of 100,000 Jews, and resulted in more than 2,000 deaths. Though the riots were organized by the Nazi Party, they could not have occurred without citizen participation.

People easily get swept into actions without realizing potential repercussions and join ideological groups without necessarily having a specific connection to the ideology. Social groupings can lead people to join ideological movements inadvertently. In many areas of civil unrest, it is not uncommon for young people to join violent groups because their friends have. As a social grouping, the violent or ideological aspects may be irrelevant.

Further, it is very easy to feel pressured into claiming a prejudice for the sake of acceptance. The archetypal example is teenagers caving to peer pressure, but the same phenomenon exists, in even stronger and more subtle ways, on the national level. If riots erupt, it is easy to get swept up in them and their anger, or to feel powerless to oppose even if you fervently disagree.

In light of these subtle persuasions, it is understandable that the German citizenry did not stand up to the mobs on Nov. 9, 1938. Even if they felt they could have swayed the mobs into not acting violently, they would not have thought to even try.

As humans, we act first in our own self-interest -- avoiding potential physical harm, maintaining social groups, getting swept up in excitement. We make decisions that make sense in the moment, but generally don't consider the larger ramifications of our self-concerned actions.

Providing a logical explanation for the actions of the individual does not, however, provide absolution for the actions of the group. Kristallnacht, then, can be considered as more than a Holocaust remembrance day -- it is a day to examine the larger repercussions of our actions, and the actions of the groups to which we belong.