Syria- An American Jewish Perspective

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Ha’azinu- The name of this week’s parashah means to LISTEN IN

In his final moments, Moses sings a song to the people.  He calls upon Heaven and Earth to be witnesses to remember the extraordinary blessings of how God found Israel in the desert, shaped them into a people and chose them as his own.

But the blessings make us complacent, and we turn our backs on the very God who provided all that we have.  And in response, God “hides his face.” We suffer as a result of our own actions.  But there is the promise that God will be reconciled with his people.  That is the message of hope.

This message rings so true today and so desperately needs to be heard.

As a nation, we are war weary.  Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a horrible heavy toll.  These long protracted wars have left us wondering why we did what we did and to what effect?  Was it all worth it? The toll in the precious lives of our men and women that served, the incalculable cost and even our moral standing in the world.  I have long believed in the American ideals; that freedom and truth and democracy were the American shining beacons upon the world- the lights unto the nations.  But these lights flicker, the result of so much we have done in the harsh realpolitik of the global stage in the beginning of this century and the century before that.

We are not the world’s policemen. But on some level, the relative stability that world has enjoyed is a Pax Americana, maintained by the dominance of the worlds only superpower projecting its influence across the globe.  And despite the cynicism, the byproduct of protecting economic and political self-interest, our guiding principles still echo in our hearts and minds, principles that focus on protecting those who are not empowered or capable of doing so themselves.  As Americans and as Jews we are compelled to respond to the travesties and tragedies that so completely offend our sacred sensibilities and values.

As Jews we are uniquely attuned to the issues of power.  Our Jewish tradition has been built on a system of ethics and morals- what we should do, what we are obligated to do, because we have historically often found ourselves outside the protection of power or civil society.  We are charged to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless because these are the people that are the vulnerable and powerless amongst us, the most ill-equipped to care for themselves

We listen to the cries of suffering of the common people of Syria as they find themselves the victims of the brutal civil war that rages.  100,000 people are dead.  Millions have fled seeking safe haven from the death and destruction that rains down indiscriminately.  Women, children, and men it makes no difference.  Fighter or Innocent bystander, it makes no difference.

The war seems to descend lower and lower into more vicious and more brutal attacks.  Sarin gas has been used and an estimated 400 children maybe 1500 adults have been murdered.  Although the numbers are not clear, the effects are.  The sound of death is excruciating; the whimper of someone struggling for breath, the moan of someone whose body is racked by pain.  Gas or bomb- a slow agonizing death is a horrible thing.

The use of chemical weapons is particularly deplorable.  But, I do not think the red line was using chemical weapons.  To me the red line is to exterminate people in the name of political power.  That line was crossed years ago.  That line resonates within me and within every Jew.  We often ask, “Why didn’t the allies stop the holocaust?”  If they only destroyed the train tracks leading to the death camps, conceivably millions could have been saved.  The world turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pleas of 12 million victims whose only crime was they were Jews or Catholics or gays or gypsies, or the physically or mentally handicapped.  Can we continue to be deaf?

I do not know what a punitive strike against the Assad regime means.  I know that the politics of action are complicated and the potential ramifications are ominous. But the results of our inaction are equally problematic.   Assad is no friend of the US or Israel and those seeking to topple him are likewise.  So to ask if intervention directly serves American security interests, the answer is likely no.  But if we instead ask the question: “can we stop the barbaric bloodshed?” Then the answer is “maybe so.”  Stopping the barbaric bloodshed however will serve an important political interest however;  for the millions streaming across the border have a hugely de-stabilizing effect on Jordan, Turkey and thereby also threatening Israel.   It is my sincerest hope that President Obama speaks to the nation this Tuesday evening cogently and honestly explaining what it is his proposed military intervention is expected to do. We deserve to hear no less.

There was a time when I thought a Bosnia-like approach to intervention could have forced the war-makers on both sides into neutral corners and saved civilian lives.  But our current redline and subsequent delay until everyone is in agreement makes the military option much less viable with every passing day.  The open debate is important, but it changes and limits the effective options available.

Assad is Russia’s ally.  We might be able to push Putin to replace his current dictator with another dictator.  Although Putin may not be predisposed to listening, we could make rather persuasive arguments, ones that might resonate. Hopefully that was part of the private discussion today between Presidents Putin and Obama in St. Petersburg.  And if the United Nations Security Council is immobilized, we can still rally a substantial portion of the international community.  Whatever we do, our commitment must be to the voices of the victims whose voices cannot be heard.  We must answer the question: “What can we do to save the innocents?”

If we only are concerned with protecting American security or economic interests, then intervention in this place and the great American experiment is nothing but an exercise in selfish world dominance that will surely end as every empire before it has ended.  But I believe the American experiment remains noble of purpose.  It is grounded in the ideals that the individual has value, honor and dignity; that each person has a voice to be heard.  The peal of freedom’s bell can and still does cry out.  If only we would listen.

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