Thursday, September 5, 2013

Difficult Choices: Israel, America, and Syria

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2013-5774

This Rosh Hashanah, we are concerned about events in Syria and in particular about upcoming votes in Congress related to President Obama’s request to intervene in Syria to stop the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

Israelis from across the political spectrum have reacted similarly. In fact, outrage and calls for action are coming most strongly from traditional doves.

In the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres:

The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, certainly not a dove, said:

The events in Syria prove that the world’s most dangerous regimes must not be allowed to gain possession of the world’s most dangerous arms. 

Ari Shavit, veteran analyst from Ha’aretz, Israel’s very much left leaning daily and very much a dove argued that:

If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday said that:

This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

Silence in relation to the mass killing of civilians is of significant importance to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. We should care. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel stated in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented … There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

Speaking of protesters, an article from NBC News on Tuesday noted that:

Several anti-war protesters interrupted the Senate hearing on Tuesday, prompting [Sec.] Kerry to say the day's events reminded him of his 1971 testimony about the war in Vietnam.

"Nobody wants this war! Cruise missiles, launching cruise missiles means another war -- the American people do not want this!" said Medea Benjamin, [the founder of Code Pink], one of the protesters. 

[Sec. Kerry then continued speaking to the committee noting], “You know, the first time that I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester, and I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are here having this debate. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.”

Two things of note: first, our own Elton Davis was there Tuesday protesting against the proposed use of military force alongside Medea Benjamin; second, on the Code Pink website, there is an article noting that Medea Benjamin herself protested in front of the Syrian embassy in April of 2011 and said at that time, almost a year and a half ago:

The shameless slaughter of Syrians civilians by their own government has been making headlines for months. We call upon the Syrian embassy to demand its government stop this senseless violence and give the people of Syria the freedom that they seek.

The senseless violence has become far, far worse since then.

Addressing concerns that the reports of chemical weapons use might not be factual, Sec. Kerry noted:

We are especially sensitive, Chuck [meaning Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel] and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence...I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen. And the Assad regime did it.
Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Committee and a New Jersey Democrat, said in response:

I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But today, I support the president's decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity.

The Senate resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria as it is currently worded would bar American ground troops for combat operations and limit the duration of any action. Some members of Congress and I am sure members of this congregation disagree with any military action by the United States in Syria. Others may agree with Senator McCain that what is proposed is not strong enough. This is far from being a simple choice.

How do the choices we have made in the past affect us as Jews? As Americans? How do we address the challenges confronting us? Those are the questions that are before us today.

Forty years ago, Israel faced some of those difficult choices.

Six years after the seemingly miraculous victory of the 1967 Six Day War during which Israel tripled in size, conquered the historical capital of Jerusalem, and defeated the combined Arab armies with relative ease, a level of pride, contentment, complacency and even arrogance reigned. Then came Yom Kippur Day, 1973 and the Yom Kippur War.

Egypt moved its forces deep into the Sinai and Syria attacked Israeli defensive positions in the Golan. Israel was not prepared and lost ground quickly. But the tide of the war changed rapidly and Israel regained and then gained ground.
Two weeks after it began, the War was over with Israeli forces poised to attack both of the capitals of its enemies, being within forty miles of Cairo and ten miles of Damascus.

In relation to most military conflicts throughout history, this war would be seen as an overwhelming military victory. Yet, it is not seen that way by most Israelis and the reason why is vital to understand.

During the 1973 War Israel lost 2,500 soldiers. That is proportionately like the US losing 250,000 soldiers and all of those soldiers died over barely more than two weeks, most within the first hours of the war! In addition, there was the realization that the situation could have been much worse.

The impact of the Yom Kippur War upon the psyche of the people of Israel was profound and has endured. The political left and right responded in two primary ways which have defined Israeli foreign policy ever since.

The political left came to believe that the war happened because of Israel’s arrogance and its dependence upon military strength. Thus, the Labor party began a pursuit of improved relations with Israel’s neighboring states and a focus on diplomatic efforts more broadly. Eventually, this point of view led directly to the Oslo Peace Process and outreach to Egypt and Jordan.

The political right came to believe that the war was a result of Israel letting its guard down, a result of complacency and weakness of will. They believe the same was the cause of the 2nd Intifada following the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the various Gaza conflicts over the past decade. Thus the Likud, while believing that good relations with Israel’s neighbors are important, has acted from a “security first, diplomacy second” position, believing that a secure Israel is in a better position to relate to its neighbors.

Of vital importance, support for seeking American approval before Israel takes action in its defense, something that prevented it from striking the assembled Syrian and Egyptian forces before they began their assault, is virtually non-existent across the political spectrum. If Israel feels that it must act on its own to ensure its security, it has and will in the future. This is true whether a left leaning or right leaning administration is in power in Israel or in America. That said Israel greatly appreciates American support if it feels a need to act against perceived threats and is reassured when it feels that it can trust that promises about maintaining Israel’s security made by the United States will be kept.

Needless to say, the widely varied positions taken by Israelis on any issue are reflected in the diverse opinions of Jews worldwide on those same issues, but with important differences.

Within the United States opinions regarding Israel are generally, but not always, filtered through a Republican or Democratic lens, through our nation’s history of military action, successes and failures, or through our individual perspectives as Jews. For Americans, three different events have come to define our political psyche and our attitude toward difficult foreign policy choices in particular. Forty and a half years ago, the last American soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam. Twelve years ago next week, on September 11, our nation was attacked by Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists. Then a decade ago, the Bush Administration along with some of our European allies made the case for war based upon the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we went to war in Iraq.

These past choices and impactful events significantly affect the way that each of us, Israeli and American, view the world and the difficult choices we face today.

All of us Jews can speak of two thousand years of oppression, persecution, exile and genocide, but in Israel there is always the fear of being in the sights of those who could try to make it happen again. We American Jews can draw on collective histories, familial histories, perhaps even personal histories, of traumatic experiences as Jews, but these same issues impact Israelis differently because of Israel’s strategic situation today.

While we American Jews look at the situation facing Israel and focus ongoing peace talks and our hopes for a swift resolution, Israelis are primarily thinking about three things, “The Iranian proxy regime in Syria, the Iranian backed militia in Lebanon-Hizballah, and the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” “Iran, Iran, Iran.” To dialogue about Israeli security concerns without beginning with Iran is, to many Israelis, like talking about lawn care with someone whose house is in danger of burning down. Though, increasingly you could add growing concerns about Egypt into the discussion.

Today both the arrogance and complacency present in Israel prior to the Yom Kippur War are gone. Both sides of the spectrum are anxious about the future, very much so in fact, not only in the long term but in the relatively short term, which brings us back to the present.

On Tuesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations came out in favor of the administration’s position that some response to Syria was necessary. The Obama Administration as well as leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the House and the Senate had urged American Jewish organizations to offer support for the lobbying effort.

AIPAC, which stands for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a press release about Syria which stated that:

Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass…

No few on both sides of the political spectrum have noted that there are dire implications of having President Obama say that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and then having Secretary of State Kerry discussing the severe consequences of such an action be followed by “We didn’t really mean it.” That could do massive damage to American deterrence in relation to every conflict for a long time to come and undermine the confidence in America among friends and enemies alike.

Some have asked, why have we not strongly protested or even acted when these weapons were used in past conflicts? Or why does it not matter equally when large numbers of civilians are killed by conventional weapons or by intentional starvation as they are in Sudan? To me, the answers are we should have protested and it very much does matter. That is part of why I do the anti-genocide work that I do.

Some have asked, “What is our strategic objective in Syria?”

AIPAC stated what appears to be the strategic objective of the Obama Administration, namely to deter the Assad regime in Syria from ever using WMDs again and to discourage anyone else from ever using them. I think we all realize that is an ambitious goal and that limited action might not achieve it. There is certainly valid debate about how we may protest and how we may take action.

To me, the situation comes down to three words to which I have a visceral emotional response: “Government, Gassing, Children.” I cannot advocate for America to stand idly by, even though I feel that we need to avoid significantly involving ourselves in a civil war being fought by two sides that are both hostile to us, an Iranian backed Syrian government and Muslim Brotherhood dominated and heavily Al Qaeda influenced rebels.

Yet, we cannot allow weapons of genocide to be used without consequence or else we will see them used more often in more places. They are weapons of convenience for superior military powers, allowing willing governments to kill everyone in a geographical area without risk to their own forces. Modest use will become frequent use if there is no response at all.

Some will say, “But we cannot be the police of the world.” The Jewish tradition says that in a place where there are no human beings, be a human being. Our mission is to be the light unto the nations, not to accept being part of the darkness.

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the March on Washington immediately before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a Dream speech.” Speaking of injustice, Rabbi Prinz offered these words:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not 'the most urgent problem.’ The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. 
We will differ on how the United States should act. But we agree, Code Pink and AIPAC, that there is a shameless slaughter ongoing in Syria and it must be stopped. Our difficult choice is not whether or not to do something, to protest, to respond, but how we must respond.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we contemplate choices that we have made and those we are considering today. This morning, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, a story of Abraham’s choice to follow what he believed he must do to please the divine and of Isaac’s willingness to follow. On Yom Kippur morning, we read of blessings and curses, hearing that the choice is ours. “Choose life,” we are told, so that we and our descendants may endure.

As a collection, the stories that we hear during the High Holidays remind us that sometimes we face challenges and decisions that we would rather not have to make, that our choices affect the blessings and curses in our lives and even whether or not we continue to be blessed with life itself.

Sometimes the choices and challenges that confront us in life are very difficult indeed. Not making a decision is also a decision. The consequences of our inaction, of our silence, of our neutrality would be profound now and into the future.

Should our nation choose to act against Syria, we hope that innocents in Syria will not suffer on our account and that the people of the nation of Israel will not have to pay the price in retaliation for our actions. May there not be a second Yom Kippur War.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!

May we all be written in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, peaceful and happy New Year!

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