What Do We Do About Syria?: One Jewish Perspective
Over a week ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend and colleague. He was seeking my advise as he was preparing some remarks about the situation in Syria which he was planning to deliver to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah, should the United States take action against her by then. At that point, I told him that I was not going to prepare such a text because the situation was so fluid. If the need did arise, I most likely would speak extemporaneously. However, that was before President Obama decided to turn this decision over to the Congress. With the matter now up for debate in the Congress, with all the variables which that implies, I changed my mind about prepared remarks. Below are the remarks that I did prepare and present to my congregation at the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah evening service. They constitute, as my title states, ONE Jewish perspective; obviously one with which I agree. It is not the only Jewish perspective, but it is mine. Since these remarks were in addition to the sermon I had prepared for the evening, they were as limited in scope as I was limited in the time I could set aside to present them. I wish that I could have fleshed them out even further, especially in terms of my vision of what actions the U.S. should and should not take. In particular, I would have liked to address the multitude of humanitarian actions that the U.S. has yet to take, and should be taking, regarding aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled across the Syrian borders into the lands of several of her neighbors, seeking to escape the ravages of war. I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors so many excellent articles, many written by colleagues. I particular want to mention an article written by Donniel Hartman, entitled “Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances,” for I found his reflections most stimulating and inspiring. I now share with you the remarks I shared with my congregation:
As we gather on this Rosh Hashanah eve there is a cloud hanging over our nation and the world. It is the cloud of war. President Obama has, in the strongest of terms, expressed his view that it is absolutely necessary that our nation take punitive military actions against Syria in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. In just a few days our Congress will begin to debate whether or not to affirm our President’s call to action. To read the newspapers and listen to the electronic media, it is clear that public opinion is torn over whether or not to act, and if to act, how to act.
There have been those who have asked me, “What is the Jewish perspective on this issue?” That is a difficult question, yet a very important one, for how can we gather on the High Holy Days and not ponder the rights and wrongs of this dire situation? Therefore, I have taken advantage of the early High Holy Days and have chosen to postpone to Yom Kippur my annual Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal, which I usually share with you at this time in order that I can take this opportunity to at least open the discussion of how Jewish texts, teachings, values, and experiences can aid each of us in our own decision making as to whether or not to support the President’s call to action.
I would like to be able to say that Jewish sources are clearly on one side of this issue or the other, but they are not. Just as there are those in our country today who say we must respond and those who say we must not put ourselves at risk by getting involved in another people’s war, so we will find Jewish texts of equally divided opinion.
In the Torah we read “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed” – in fact we will read that very text on Yom Kippur afternoon. Yet the rabbis saw a limitation to that requirement. They tell us that even though we are required to rescue others, we are not required to do so at the cost us our own lives. In the Talmud, in Tractate Baba Metzia, there is a case presented in which two people are in the desert but only one of them has a bottle of water. If they share the water, they both will die while if only one drinks, that person will survive. What should be done? The rabbis decided that the owner of the water should keep it for himself, and survive, for one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another.
In these two texts we see the core of both sides of the argument as being waged today. On one side, in the spirit of Leviticus, there are those who claim we have a moral obligation to rescue those who are being callously slaughtered in Syria. On the other side, in the spirit of Tractate Baba Metzia, there are those who argue against intervention lest it cost more American lives. It is this very ambiguity between the perspectives of Leviticus and Baba Metzia which has kept us out of the Syrian conflict up until now.
But now the game has changed as the Asad regime has introduced the use of chemical weapons even though they are illegal and constitute weapons of mass destruction. What is a weapon of mass destruction? It is a weapon which when deployed kills on a mammoth scale, making no distinction among its victims between combatants and non-combatants. In utilizing such weaponry, the Syrian government forces have crossed the line from waging conventional warfare to perpetrating atrocities. This is the red line of which President Obama has often spoken.
Why is this red line so important? Because failing to take action when chemical weapons are used because, at this particular time, somebody else and not our people, are the targets, is to give tacit approval to the use of chemical weapons in general; it is to send a message to any despot, any terrorist group, any evil doer that they, too, are free to employ such weapons against any target they so choose. Today, the target is the Syrian rebels. Tomorrow it very likely could be Israel. But it could also be London or Washington or New York. If our experience with terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that if left unchallenged, there is no containing terrorist activities and everyone is a potential target.
That brings us to the argument of self defense; that taking action against Syria now is actually an act of self defense lest at some future time someone chooses to use such weapons against us. Here, too, Jewish texts have something to say. In the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Laws, we are told that we are obligated to take the life of the “pursuer” – someone who is attempting to kill us – in order to save our own life. So if we view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as potentially opening the door to the proliferation of such use, which in turn would endanger the American people, then taking action against Syria is necessary.
Stepping away from classical Jewish texts, we also need to look at historical Jewish experience. One most certainly can draw a parallel between Syria having crossed the line in its use of chemical weapons against its people with the Nazi’s crossing the line in their use of chemical weapons – the gas chambers – against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again!” When we said it, we did not just mean, “Never again will we permit them to do this to Jews.” Rather what we meant is that “Never again will we permit one group of people to do this to any other group of people.” We have already failed in that commitment when we turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda. And though we spoke a good game about our opposition to the genocide in Darfur, our response was painfully slow and inadequate. The question becomes, will we once again fail to live up that pledge? If we do fail, then we have to face up to the fact that there is a great deal of hypocrisy ever time we hold a Yom HaShoah service.
If we choose to act, what should be the outcome we seek? It should not be regime change or supporting one side over the other in the Syrian civil war. A civil war is just that; a civil war; an internal national struggle between citizens, which must be resolved internally. Rather the outcome we should seek is to send a clear and decisive message that if you need to fight to resolve your internal differences, the go ahead and do so, but you must do it with conventional weapons and not with weapons of mass destruction. We will not tolerate the use of such weapons and we will not stand idly by if they are used.
Lastly, what about Israel? People on both sides of this issue have claimed that they have Israel’s best interests at heart. First of all, we need to understand that no matter how the Syrian civil war ultimately resolves, Israel is the loser. If the rebels win, then Israel will find the rebels’ allies – Al Qaeda – camped along its borders, ready to strike. If Asad’s forces win, then the hands of Hezbollah will have been strengthened and Iran emboldened. Yet as great as those threats are to Israel, far more does she fear that American inaction at this time will give her enemies the green light to employ chemical weapons against her. Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that Israeli leaders from such opposite ends of the spectrum as are Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres agree on this matter.
It is no easy task to keep the world safe from those who revel in death and destruction. May we find in this quagmire an all too hidden path to peace.
BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a and Shulchan Aruch 425.
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