4/11/18 On Yom Hashoah - what is our responsibility for what has happened in Syria


This week in Tel Aviv and throughout the country, Israelis will commemorate the Holocaust. Speeches will be given on how the world stood idly by and how we will never allow another Holocaust to happen again. However, to some that claim rings hollow. After all, this week, began with the horrific gassing of Syrians in Douma, at the hands of the Syrian government — precisely during the week in which Yom Hashoa v’Hagevurah (Day of [Remembrance of] the Holocaust and the Heroism) takes place. The tragedy in Douma is only the latest in a long series of attacks on civilians in Syria by the regime of Bashar Assad, which has left nearly 700,000 dead and resulted in the ethnic cleansing of much of Syria from its Sunni majority population. This mass extermination in Syria has all taken place as the world looked on and did nothing.

There is a long list of world leaders who could have, or even should have done something. Stopping the Assad killing machine, accomplishable mostly from the air, would not have been that difficult to achieve, since each and every major western government possesses an Air Force capable of fully grounding the Syrian Air Force. Nevertheless, the continued genocide being perpetrated by the Assad regime is not solely the fault of those countries guilty due to the sin of omission, but by two countries — i.e. Russia and Iran — who have been actively aiding Assad, (with the Russians, by all accounts, participating in the indiscriminate bombing of civilians — which does constitute a war crime).

Although there is certainly enough blame to go around, here in Israel, some have come to realize we can no longer feel blameless. On Sunday, the Israeli Chief Sephardic stated Israel has an obligation to stop the mini-Holocaust going on in Syria, and that that responsibility was as strong as our imperative to destroy the Syrian Nuclear reactor. Earlier this past week was not the first time the Sephardic Chief Rabbi has made such a declaration. Regrettably, responses to the Rabbi’s appeal have repeatedly asserted that it was not in Israel’s strategic interest to intervene. Of course, that answer always begged another question — What about Israel's moral duty?

Assad is about to become the winner in the Syrian Civil War, largely due to relentless attacks on civilians by him and his allies. Consequently, thanks to Assad’s close alliance with the Iranians, the outcome of the war has turned out to be a strategic disaster for Israel — as either Iranians or Iranian proxies will now be situated on two of Israel’s four borders. Israel could have destroyed Assad’s most effective weapon of genocide (i.e., his Air Force) in a matter of minutes, however, it did not do so.

In hindsight, Israel made the wrong strategic decision, and now over half a million innocents are dead. Few Israelis will admit this miscalculation, and when asked, the average resident of Tel Aviv would likely say: “It’s not our responsibility … the world should have done something … the US should have done something”. All correct. Still, we could have done something — and yet, perhaps, for what had been all the right reasons at the time the decision was made — we did not take action.

Issues of morality and their conflict with national interests have become an ever more vexing challenge for Israel over the course of the past few years. What lesson should the Jewish State have learned from the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy in Jewish history? Some believe the Holocaust teaches that Jews need to make every effort to ensure a calamity like that never happens to anyone else in the world, ever again — and that that is one of the unique responsibilities of the Jewish people. For others, the Holocaust proves only we must take care of ourselves, and therefore, we must do so, by whatever means necessary. Often this view is Israel-centric, even to the extent of turning a blind eye to signs of antisemitism, if and when the situation serves Israel’s national interests.

The later view has clearly been the guiding principle of the current Israeli government — which is the reason why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate President Victor Orban of Hungary on his reelection, despite the fact the Hungarian leader has been promoting a campaign tinged with antisemitic imagery against George Soros and damaging Hungarian democratic institutions. This thinking was also the impetus behind the unwillingness of the Israeli government to recall the Israeli Ambassador to Poland, following the recent passage of a law deeming it illegal to claim Poland was responsible in any way for the Holocaust (an action that appears to mirror a growing renewal of antisemitism in Poland). Such consideration has also led to the reluctance of the Israeli government to forcibly condemn the increasing incidence of antisemitism in America, especially among the far right.

Without question, the lessons gleaned from the Holocaust should be embodied in Israel’s actions internally, as well. Our people’s suffering should provide instruction for how we ought to treat the African migrants currently in our country. Our people’s history should have guided us on how we need to treat the Palestinians, whom we have occupied for over 50 years. In neither case does it seem to have done so.

Yom Hashoah is commemorated one week before Israel’s Day of Independence. Israelis are evenly divided between the two groups referred to earlier — i.e. those who think the lessons of the Holocaust compel us to ensure such catastrophe never happens to anyone else, and those who believe the Holocaust serves as a cautionary tale to prove only we ourselves can ensure our own safety.

The divide between these two world views has gotten wider in recent years. The best answer requires fusing the two approaches. Yes, first and foremost, we must worry about our safety and security. However, that must be done while understanding our own moral responsibility; an obligation which we should have internalized in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel desperately needs leaders who can integrate and meld together these two fundamental principles. Regrettably, no such individual seems to be on the immediate horizon. As a result, instead of uniting Israel, the lessons learned from the Holocaust may perilously further divide it in coming years.