Maybe it’s time for Israel to intervene in Syria, and for the United States to take action as well.
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Holocaust Remembrance Day—Yom Hashoah—begins Sunday evening. We Jews will remember our six million dead. We will give voice to our anguish at the extermination of one third of our people. We will recall that less than a century ago, Jews were powerless in a dangerous world. And we will express our gratitude that, thanks to the State of Israel, we are no longer helpless and vulnerable, nor forever at the mercy of those who, in every generation, rise up and seek to destroy us.
We will say, as we have in years past, “Never again,” and we will mean it.
Still, this year will be different. The words that we say will be no less valid than before, but we will be unsettled and uneasy as we say them. Our thoughts will turn to Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor. In six years of war, half a million people have perished. And the slaughter continues.
When we started saying “Never again,” it was not intended to apply only to us. It was intended to mean “no more mass slaughters and exterminations.” It was intended to mean “no more gassing of children.” It was intended to assert that no more would the world sit in silence as innocents perished at the hands of maniacs and mass murderers.
But of course it did not mean that. The world has continued in its murderous ways. “Never again Auschwitz” led to “Never again Rawanda,” “Never again Bosnia,” and “Never again Darfur.” But to no avail. Bashar al-Assad inserts sarin gas into artillery shells, suffocating babies. And world leaders—President Trump’s one-time missile strike notwithstanding—avert their eyes, or, at best, cluck their tongues.
None of this is Israel’s fault. Israel has a strong army, but it is a small country surrounded by enemies in a region that has descended into chaos. Prime Minister Netanyahu has danced a delicate dance, and generally speaking has danced it well; he has used Israel’s air force to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weapons, and otherwise has avoided escalation. When asked if Israel should be responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, a senior IDF officer recently stated: “The State of Israel has no reason to jump into where the big powers are operating.”
And who is to say that this officer is wrong? I am quick to acknowledge my uncertainties and conflicting sentiments. How much can little Israel be expected to do?
Still. It is somehow different when a near-genocide is happening in your neighborhood and on your border. It is somehow different when the eternal victim, blessed with considerable military might, must observe close-up the unspeakable horrors inflicted on innocents by a madman leader.
And so, with ambivalences acknowledged, I offer a few thoughts on the catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on Israel’s role in it.
1. Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust, deserves our profound gratitude for affirming that what is taking place in Syria is a Holocaust and for expressing discomfort that Israel has done nothing to stop what is happening there. Lau has been criticized by many, and the term “Shoah” may or may not be precisely correct for events in Syria. But Rabbi Lau has given voice to the revulsion that Jews everywhere feel as the death toll climbs. The anguish that he has expressed on our behalf is far more important than considerations of whether the slaughter in Syria fits the technical definition of what constitutes a Holocaust.
2. Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal. This we know. But—take note President Trump—Vladimir Putin is also a war criminal. Putin’s backing of Assad has been massive and essential for his survival, and his defense of Assad in international forums has been inexcusable. Mild words of criticism from Trump are not enough. And “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran are also war criminals. Their forces have, on numerous occasions, kept Assad’s army from collapse. Americans, and American Jews, can disagree about the Iran nuclear deal, but there can be no disagreement about the satanic character of the Iranian regime.
3. The UN, yet again, has proven itself to be a joke. The UN is capable of carrying out certain humanitarian tasks, but it remains almost always incapable of putting an end to bloody, genocidal conflicts that rend the heart and outrage civilized people everywhere.
4. Why are Israel’s critics silent on the Syrian slaughter? I support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I do not believe that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front can wait until other crises in the region are resolved. Nonetheless, the Syrian conflict is a daily horror of such urgency that no one can profess to have a moral vision for the Middle East without addressing it. Where are the boycotters and the IfNotNowers? Why are they horrified at events in the territories but concerned hardly at all by what is happening in Syria?
5. There are things that Israel can do militarily, and probably should do, despite the risks. Rabbi Lau made a moving moral plea for action to save the innocent. Former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has called on Israel to destroy Syrian aircraft that are dropping shells filled with deadly gas and barrel bombs targeting civilians. Saydnaya prison, near Damascus, has been the execution site for perhaps 10,000 people, and comes close to being an extermination camp; as such, it constitutes a legitimate target for destruction.
No one doubts that Israel’s military is capable of taking such steps. The danger is that these steps would lead to escalation and a wider war. But alliances are possible that could minimize the risks. President Trump, his bromance with Vladimir Putin now seemingly at an end, has expressed his revulsion at the killing in Syria. Yet since he is reluctant to commit American forces, he might welcome and support specific life-saving military operations by Israel that would respond to the horrors on the ground.
6. And finally, President Trump’s reluctance notwithstanding, America must move toward a broader strategy to end the war—and American Jews must do their share to make this happen. As Thomas Friedman has noted, responsible voices in both the Middle East and the West have recognized that the best possible solution is a partition of Syria into a Shi'ite-controlled western area, a Sunni-controlled eastern area, and a Kurdish-controlled northern area. Such a solution would not be perfect for anyone, including Israel. But it is far better than the status quo, which is a moral and humanitarian disaster, is undermining the stability of Jordan and the Gulf States, and is flooding Europe with refugees.
The problem, of course, is that it would require NATO and the Arab league to put forces on the ground in order to protect the Sunni population, from both Assad and ISIS. And this would mean an American contingent as well.
This would be a tough sell to the American people and to President Trump. But the alternative is more gassings, more chaos, more killings, more refugees, and the gradual descent of greater Syria into a true hell on earth. The international order, already under enormous strain, would inch toward collapse. Our hopes of “Never again” would disappear forever in the conflagration sure to ensue.
Far better on this Yom HaShoah to work for a solution that perhaps, eventually, might bring a measure of sanity and peace.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie