Israeli Chief Rabbi Calls Syrian War 'A Small Holocaust'

Yitzhak Yosef makes comments during historic, secret meeting in Jerusalem between senior Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders, calls on Jews to speak out.

Yair Ettinger
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Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Yair Ettinger

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Thursday described the civil war in Syria as “a small holocaust,” and called on Jews to speak out against the situation.

Yosef made the comments during a historic meeting between senior Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. The religious leaders also jointly called for an end to the violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

This was the first time in which Yosef, who is also the head of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in his role as Sephardi chief rabbi, met with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud al-Habash. The latter is the senior adviser on religious and Islamic affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the supreme judge of the PA’s Sharia courts.

Even though the meeting was dedicated to the issue of the recent wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, Yosef used the meeting to address the situation in Syria.

Yosef said man was created in God’s image and that when murder occurs, we are forbidden to remain silent. “We are forbidden to repeat what happened during the Holocaust when millions of Jews were murdered and the world was silent,” he said.

“Not far from here, at the same time we are sitting here, in our neighbor Syria – and in particular in the city of Aleppo – every day, men, women and children are being murdered with chemical and biological weapons, and aerial bombings,” Yosef said. “Millions of refugees are without [anywhere to live], hundreds of thousands of others are subject to starvation and under siege. They are not our friends, but they are human beings undergoing a small holocaust.

“The people of Israel underwent a horrible Holocaust 70 years ago,” Yosef added. “Millions of Jews were murdered, millions of others remained refugees, they were not provided with a refuge anywhere. The Nazi beast murdered those same millions and the world saw and remained silent; we as Jews who felt this silence in our own flesh cried out for years, we asked how the world knew and remained silent?

“I want to make use of this forum and say that as Jews it is forbidden for us to remain silent. The call will come out from here: Genocide cannot be ignored, not in Syria and not anywhere, and not against any people, even if they are not our friends. I ask you, religious leaders, to make your voices heard. Everyone must use their influence and, in doing so, maybe we can prevent the horror,” he added.

Syrians carrying the body of a man following airstrikes on a rebel-held neighborhood of the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, October 12, 2016.
Syrians carrying the body of a man following airstrikes on a rebel-held neighborhood of the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, October 12, 2016.Credit: Ameer Alhalbi/AFP

Thursday’s meeting included a number of Israeli rabbis and Muslim qadis (Muslim judges), and President Reuven Rivlin. The summit was the result of a year’s work by the Washington Institute Initiative – an independent, nonpartisan research institution funded exclusively by U.S. citizens – and was led by two institute scholars, David Makovsky and David Pollock. The move followed the latest bout of violence – dubbed the “lone-wolf” intifada – over the past year.

In the joint statement released at the end of the meeting, the religious leaders said: “God created life and commanded life. Therefore, we denounce the killing of innocents or any kind of aggression against the other. We believe the deliberate killing of or attempt to kill innocents is terrorism, whether it is committed by Muslims, Jews or others. In this spirit, we encourage all our people to work for a just peace, mutual respect for human life and for the status quo on the holy sites, and the eradication of religious hatred.”

Despite the great symbolic value of the meeting, it was conducted with a very low profile and in great secrecy. Journalists were not invited, at the request of the Palestinians. Photographs were not taken and the President’s Office did not issue a press release after the event, though the Washington Institute did issue a statement.

“The meeting today is important and significant – perhaps the most important meeting that could be held during these days,” the Washington Institute quoted Rivlin as saying. “We all know that the tensions between Jews and Muslims are difficult, and specifically for that reason we insist on meeting together here today. We must not allow this land to once again witness a sacrifice of blood senselessly spilled.”

Among the other rabbis participating were Moshe Lichtenstein and Shlomo Brin – heads of the Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank – and Daniel Tropper, the founder and former president of the Gesher Foundation. The other Palestinian participants were not named.

“Having Jewish and Muslim leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority join together at the home of the president of Israel sends a powerful message of peace at a critical and sensitive moment,” said Makovsky and Pollock after the meeting.

“Over the last year, we have seen a rise in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians that has led to grave consequences. Since much of the violence of the last year has been religiously motivated, we believed it was vital for religious leaders to speak out. One should never assume one meeting alone can be transformative, but it could provide an important foundation to build upon,” said the two.

The Washington Institute said it brought together Habash and Lichtenstein in early 2016 to discuss the role of religious leaders in conflict mitigation, with the help of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA. In subsequent rounds of talks, each side brought along three additional religious leaders.

“Participants began to understand each other’s perspective on the conflict, how each views its own religious narrative, and the importance of religious leaders speaking out against religiously inspired violence and promoting tolerance and peace,” said the institute.