The 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall got a lot of press yesterday, and deservedly so. Yet I hardly saw a whimper about the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10.

The coincidence of these anniversaries is striking. Both were instances of violence. Both were instances of breaking. Yet one was a destructive event that hastened the othering, subjugation, and elimination of a group of people for the sake of German identity; the other was a destructive event that was constructive at heart, and that brought about unification, reconciliation, and formation of a new German identity.

In the 51 years between Kristallnacht and the fall of the wall, the very idea of personhood, of nationhood, shifted dramatically. In 1938, the logic of nations was still rooted in a concept of ethno-racial identity. By 1989, human rights trumped all, and its simple and inexorable power broke through the wall and brought down the Soviet Union. In the ensuing decades, neoliberalism–vaguely defined as a non-dogmatic commitment to democratic and capitalist ideals worldwide–became the  norm, leaving little room for ethno-racial-religious notions of identity. Economics would unite everyone, and walls would continue to come down. At least that was the idea.

Of course, these narratives form the backdrop to the wall that gets the most attention in the world these days, the wall that separates much of Israel and the West Bank. And the questions of these two moments–of November 9, 1938 and November 9, 1989–linger. As Sergio Della Pergola, the noted Israeli demographer, said in a talk yesterday here at NU Hillel, the state of Israel has to choose between three values, of which it can only actually have two: Jewishness, democracy, and geography. It can be Jewish and on the land, but it cannot be democratic; it can be democratic on the land, but not be Jewish; it can be Jewish and democratic, but not on the land.

By the logic of human rights, we have to pay attention to the demographic reality that within a matter of months, 50% of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will be Arabs. By the logic of ethno-religious identity, the Jewish State and the Arab state (as they were termed in UN Resolution 181) need to, deserve to, and pragmatically should exist. What walls need to be broken, and what walls need to be erected and protected, to bring about peace? That, to me anyway, is the true question of November 9.

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