We are all painfully aware of the genocides of the last two decades in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and we have watched the ongoing violence and suffering taking place across the Middle East, but did you know that there is an urgent human rights crisis in Syria right now that demands our attention?
Since March 2011, when a pro-democracy uprising started in Syria, military forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have subjected densely populated civilian neighborhoods to months-long sieges, continuous artillery bombardments, and military air raids in an effort to crush the rebellion against the Assad regime. Some areas recaptured by the government – such as Houla, Taftanaz, and Deraya – have seen systematic massacres of peaceful activists, women, and children. So far, 40,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and 4.8 million displaced. However, the worst may be yet to come: Today, there are reports that the Assad government might use poison gas against rebel positions, even up to the Turkish border, which could create the possibility of a much wider war and many thousands of new casualties. The apparent defection of the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, who had previously denied Syria was considering the use of poison gas, only adds cause for concern. While warnings by U.S. officials that Syrian use of poison gas would prompt military intervention are helpful, by then, it might already be tens of thousands of deaths too late.
As American Jews, we know all too well the costs of U.S. inaction in the face of mass atrocity. Our sacred texts teach us, "Do not idle while your fellow bleeds." Ever since the Assad regime began continuous artillery bombardments on population centers in the February 2012 siege of Homs, the Syrian people have been pleading for American intervention (provision of heavy weapons and/or a no-fly zone) to stop the bloodshed; they have held numerous mass protests with titles such as "The people want arming of the Free Army" and "America, have we not bled enough?" asking for American help to end the regime-sponsored bloodshed.
The situation in Syria is immensely complex, and there are risks to a stronger American response that should be carefully considered and accounted for. Perhaps individuals hostile to the U.S. will replace the regime; perhaps rebel groups will carry out reprisal attacks and carry on their own genocide; perhaps this is a regional crisis too messy for the U.S. to wade into. Yet these same risks were present during the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and the humanitarian argument won out. When do we decide that the civilian death toll is too high for us to remain on the sidelines? When do we appreciate that the very sanctity of human life, and the Torah's affirmation "B'Tzelem Elokim Bera Otam" -- Hashem created humankind in the Divine image-- demands that we respond to protect civilians from mass slaughter, even if it involves sacrifice on our part? In June, Holocaust survivor and famed author and scholar Elie Wiesel lamented of the Syria crisis, "the so-called civilized world isn't even trying to stop the massacre." Reflecting on American reluctance to engage in another war, he asked, "Should Syrian families suffer because of the help we have given others?"
Judaism teaches that we must go over and above the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) to support those most vulnerable (Bava Metzia 83a). We must be moved toward mercy for those who are suffering, and this must affect how we build society. Numerous Jewish teachings remind us that our primary responsibility is to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable individuals and parties: “G-d takes the side of the aggrieved and the victim” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). The Rabbis teach that “Even if a righteous person attacks a wicked person, G-d still sides with the victim” (Yalkut Shimoni). When there is conflict, G-d simply cannot withhold support for those suffering. Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 67). This is what it means to be Jewish, to prioritize the suffering in conflict. All people deserve our love and care, but we must follow the path of G-d and make our allegiances clear: We stand with the destitute, oppressed, alienated, and suffering.
We call upon President Obama and members of the U.S. Congress to act urgently to end the Syrian regime's ongoing killings of civilians, and lead a multilateral intervention that will stop the bloodshed. Such an intervention would not require ground troops, but only measures that prevent the regime from launching aerial attacks, and especially chemical attacks, on population centers. We are also calling upon the U.S. government to support humanitarian assistance to displaced persons, and to work to stop the flow of weapons to the Assad regime in any way possible.
Now is the time to stand with the victims of regime-sponsored atrocities in Syria. Consider signing our petition and asking for U.S. action to end the violence, and joining us at our vigils and rallies to support the victims. May justice prevail!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"