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As Kristallnacht anniversary approaches, I still hope hate speech will end

I’m a huge sports fan. And while I have a particular penchant for my hometown Chicago teams, I’ll tune in to any big game. For me, sports provide the unscripted drama that supersedes the latest Netflix binge. Watching an underdog college basketball team make a surprise run to the Elite Eight provides me with exhilaration matched by that of few other hobbies.

Not everyone shares this passion. Many question the huge contracts and lavish lifestyles for not much more than having the skill to put a ball in a basket or throw a small, round object 95 mph.

However, in recent years, sports have taken the spotlight beyond the playing field and into the fight for social justice. Moments like these, where athletes stand up for what they truly believe in, have made many of us proud.

Witnessing athletes as upstanders — making difficult choices that potentially threaten their livelihood in hopes of making a difference — has been extraordinary.

However, I wonder why similar efforts are absent in response to antisemitism. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes targeting Jews accounted for nearly 9% of all reported hate crimes in 2020, and 57.5% of all religious bias crimes. When antisemitic comments are made by public figures, the resulting discipline is often minimal at best.

Each time I read an offensive statement or post, I am hopeful that such hurtful words will be treated with the same outcry and disdain as other acts of bigotry, only to be disappointed by the lack of action and any true punishment.

Why is that? Why are consequences less severe when antisemitic comments are made? Shouldn’t all hate speech be treated with the same contempt?

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I have chosen to honor their legacies through my involvement at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. While serving in several roles at the museum, perhaps the most important one is being a member of the Speakers Bureau, where I have the opportunity to share my paternal grandfather’s story.

Before his passing in 1997, Walter Thalheimer spent the twilight years of his life telling his unique and compelling story to thousands, educating them about atrocities of the past while encouraging his listeners to be upstanders. In preparation for my role with the Speakers Bureau, I watched my grandfather’s video testimony once again in order to hear his story in his own words.

It was apparent that as difficult as it must have been to relive such unimaginable memories, my grandfather knew he had a responsibility to share his journey in order to ensure that the events of the Holocaust would never happen again.

Nov. 9 marks the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, a horrific night of deadly attacks and vandalism, during which the lives of many European Jews changed forever. Each year on this anniversary of the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust, I am reminded of the reasons why I share my grandfather’s story and strive to be an upstander.

With Nov. 9 approaching, each and every one of us should reflect upon the memory of this unspeakable night and ask ourselves why our society continues to allow antisemitism to occur without true consequence. Despite the disappointment I feel each time I see yet another example of such bigotry, I continue to have faith in humanity.

By remembering the past and teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice and indifference, and that emphasize tolerance and acceptance, perhaps one day hate speech of all kinds will cease to exist. Until then, I will continue to support the museum’s work to educate students, law enforcement and the broader public. And I will continue to share my grandparents’ stories and work to ensure that the atrocities of the past will never be repeated.

I hope you’ll join me in fighting to end universal hate speech. As we find ourselves at this crossroads, will you choose to be an upstander?

Dan Thalheimer, Grandson of Holocaust Survivors and Museum Board Member

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