Hanukkah, Syria and the Perils of Empire

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A front line in Aleppo, Syria, on December 12, 2012. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

Cross-posted with Truthout

It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.

Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.

So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?

Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)

The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!”  Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.

The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.

Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?

I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.

These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:

As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).

We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:

The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.

Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.

Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:

Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.

In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.

One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:

I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.

One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.

This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.


The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s First Yom Kippur Service

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Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.

The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.

And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”

It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?

There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.

In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.

In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.

In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.

And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”

Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.

Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”

If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.

And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.

As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.

Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.

However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:

It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.

In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.

On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.

According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”

The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.

Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.

In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.

This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”

According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.

So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?

I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.

And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:

Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”

How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.

I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:

Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:

Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.

Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.

Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.

Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.

And let us say,

Amen.


What Would Real Diplomacy in Syria Look Like?

photo: CNN

photo: CNN

Secretary of State Kerry is off to the Middle East, among other things to press for peace talks to stem the tragic bloodshed in Syria. There’s a refreshing thought: up until now we’ve been hearing that the US’s dilemma is essentially a choice between military intervention or inaction. In this day and age, actual diplomacy too often feels like a quaint endangered species.

I’m certainly mindful that US “peace deals” often have more to do with US interests than real and lasting peace – and I fully agree with journalist Shamus Cooke when he writes:

It’s possible that Obama wants to avoid further humiliation in his Syria meddling by a last minute face-saving “peace” deal. It’s equally likely, however, that these peace talks are a clever diplomatic ruse, with war being the real intention. It’s not uncommon for peace talks to break down and be used as a justification for an intensification of war, since “peace was attempted but failed.”

At the same time, however, diplomacy may well be our best option to stem the horrid violence which just seems to spiral and escalate without end. As Iran expert Trita Parsi, recently wrote in Open Zion:

A peaceful and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis is not within reach in the short-term. But a significant reduction in the violence and bloodshed can be achieved because the appetite for diplomacy is stronger now than at anytime in the past two years. The peace summit prepared by the U.S. and Russia can achieve this if they bring all the parties to the table.

Some more wise words on the importance of real diplomatic intervention in Syria. First, from Ron Young of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East:

To have a realistic chance of success, such an international intervention would have to involve Russia — and Iran and China — as well as countries supporting the rebels. Twin goals of the intervention would be to halt the violence and achieve agreement on a political transition involving the rebels and elements of the current regime that would provide assurances for all of Syria’s diverse internal communities and for interests of the major outside parties. The current U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia is worthy of public support, and should be pursued with creativity and determination.

And finally, Rich Rubenstein (Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University) writes:

Clearly, any dialogue between the warring parties in Syria is better than continuing to destroy and dismember that nation. Talk, by all means! But the most promising process would involve talks presided over by a team of independent facilitators accepted by both the regime and its opponents – confidential dialogues that would help them explore the systemic causes of the war and fashion a plan for a new Syria. The Americans, Europeans, and neighboring states should agree to stay out of the way while the talks continue and to stand ready to guarantee any agreement reached by the parties.


Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War

An injured civilian is evacuated after shelling by government forces in Aleppo. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Now that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has resigned and is no longer leading the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the horrors unfolding in Syria, the prospect for a peaceful conclusion to this conflict look bleaker than ever – if it’s even possible to suggest such a thing:

(Kofi Annan) cited the Syrian government’s “intransigence” and the opposition’s “escalating military campaign” as major impediments to his peace efforts, along with a lack of unity in the international community on how to deal with the crisis.

I’m thinking “lack of unity in the international community” was just Annan’s polite way of saying this tragic mess in Syria has devolved into a sickening proxy war in which no one’s hands are clean and the only losers are the Syrian people themselves.

If you dare, I recommend you read this blisteringly bitter analysis by journalist Robert Fisk, who excoriates the cynical interests – from the US, to Russia and China, to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to Hezbollah, to the media, to “our dear liberal selves – who are allowing Syria to be used as a bloody chess board, even as they speak out against the daily atrocities that are occurring there:

Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I’m not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I’m referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.

What could possibly be the outcome of a cowardly proxy war in a sectarian Middle Eastern country? Samia Nakhoul, in a lengthy piece for Reuters, offered this dismal – if most likely – answer:

With no Western appetite for military intervention and no prospect of an internationally mediated political resolution, many see the civil war spreading and tearing the country apart.

“Disintegration of Syria is a possibility and the problem is it won’t work. It would create a power vacuum in which others get dragged in just like Iraq. It is a very frightening scenario,” (Cambridge University analyst George) Joffe said.

Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury predicted: “Syria could plunge into a long protracted civil war that could last years. The civil war in Lebanon, with its much smaller population of five million, lasted 15 years due to foreign interference so Syria would be much more complicated.

“The Syrian crisis is so inflammatory that its flames will affect the region in one way or another.”

A prayer for the people of Syria – and a pox on all our houses…


On Syrians, Palestinians and American Options

I’ve just written the following in response to a comment on the tragic situation unfolding in Syria,  but I think it bears posting here front and center on the main page. Further comments, as always, are welcome:

Ike, you are right that the butchery going on in Syria is heinous and deserves the highest possible condemnation. I also agree 100% with you that the human rights situation going on there is far more acute than “what is going on with the Palestinians.” In fact, Palestinian blogger Sami Kishawi recently made this very point in a recent post in which he also quoted a Palestinian protester in New York who said on YouTube:

The horrible things happening in Syria, even Israel didn’t do to us in Palestine. Anybody who says that the Assad regime is with Palestine and that the atrocities happening are in our favor is wrong, and if the freedom of Palestine was dependent on the slaughtering of Syrian children, I would tell you as a Palestinian that I don’t want to be free.

While this certainly should not be about “who is suffering more,” I do think it’s important to point out that the Syrian situation has been front and center in the mainstream media for at least a year – and has been met with world-wide condemnation, while the Palestinians’ plight, which is constant and ongoing, has flown well under the media radar – and not only is it not condemned by the West; it is actually enabled and made possible by our country. As I’ve written many times before, as Americans and as Jews, I/we are directly culpable in this situation – and, yes, this is indeed something I try to highlight in my blog.

On the issue of “pressing our government to do something about” the Syrian crisis: as tragic as this slaughter may be, I do not think the US has many good options to stop the bloodshed beyond what it is doing right now – and I strongly believe that US military intervention would only beget even greater tragedy. On this point I am in full agreement with Josh Landis – one of the smartest and most insightful Syria experts we have. I recommend his recent post in Syria Comment on this issue:

The US, Europe and the Gulf states want regime change in Syria so they are starving the regime and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and arms to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. Crudely put, the US is pursuing regime-change by civil-war. This is the most it can and should do…

It seems heartless to stand by and do so little as massacres such as that carried out at Houla continue. More than 13 thousand Syrians have been killed in the last 14 months of revolution. All the same US intervention is not the solution. American troops killed over 10 thousand Iraqis in the first month of invasion in 2003. They killed a further 120,000 Iraqis in anger by the time the country was stabilized and safe to leave – and even then Iraq remains in turmoil and a new dictatorship seems to be taking shape. Car bombs are a daily occurrence in Baghdad.

In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria as a gift. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them. America can play a role with aid, arms and intelligence, but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria’s future, determine winners, and take charge of Syria. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must own the revolution and find their own way to winning it. It is better for Syria and it is better for America.


Brit Tzedek Hits the Hill

Just returned from DC and an invigorating few days with Brit Tzedek v’Shalom‘s Advocacy Days on Capitol Hill. Anyone who supports a Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace policy should take heart in knowing that more than 150 activists from all over the country devoted themselves to in-depth briefings and advocacy training before fanning across the Hill to visit the offices of House reps and senators, encouraging our leaders to redouble their efforts toward a two-state solution. (If you will allow me a shameless brag, JRC provided ten participants – far and away the most from any one congregation and comprising the overwhelming majority of Illinois constituents. A sampling of JRC’ers above, from left to right: Michael Peshkin, moi, Jan Yourist and Mark Zivin.)

It currently is a time of tentative hope in the region. A fragile cease-fire has been brokered between Israel and Hamas, talks are continuing between Syria and Israel, and there are also encouraging signs of hope coming out of Lebanon. Sadly, the US is nowhere is be seen in these efforts. (The negotiations with Hamas, Syria and Lebanon were brokered by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, respectively). On this issue, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted recently in Ha’aretz regarding negotiations with Syria:

I don’t think we will have negotiations before the end of this year without the contribution of the Americans, who, alone, can help bridge the gaps.

The plain truth is that no lasting negotiation between Israel and its neighbors has ever happened without an active mediating effort by the US. Sadly, the Annapolis talks are barely limping along – and despite Bush’s rosy prognostications, no one in his/her right mind could claim that anything resembling a negotiated settlement will emerge before time runs out on the current administration.

Our message to our national leaders was simple: Congress needs to urge our new administration to make peace between Israel and Palestine a real priority from day one. Time is running out – and we simply cannot afford another President who waits until the waning days of his presidency to become actively engaged in the peace process.

Our Congressional visits were encouraging – but the true test is yet to come. The latest polls tell us that 87% of American Jewry support a negotiated two-state solution. If this is true, then American Jews need to be unflagging in our efforts to encourage our leaders to take the specific and painful steps to make this a reality.

Indeed, there’s nothing novel about advocating for a two-state solution per se. What is needed now for leaders to be explicit on the steps needed to make this happen. A preliminary laundry list: the appointment of a special envoy for this exclusive purpose, an unequivocal demand for an end to Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and stronger Palestinian efforts to maintain security in the territories.

In the current political climate it will take real bravery for American politicians to take these kinds of public positions. But the strong majority of American Jews who are committed to a real and lasting peace must do what we can to give our leaders the cover to provide this kind of leadership. I’m enormously proud that Brit Tzedek is leading the charge in this effort.


Back on the Syria Track?

Could there be something in the air between Israel and Syria? We’ve receiving reports that the two countries have been back channeling with the help of Turkey for some time – and now Syrian President Assad has told a Qatar newspaper that Turkish involvement had yielded an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty.

The inevitable diplomatic two-step has already begun. Olmert’s office does not confirm or deny anything, and the report has already set off a political firestorm in Israeli political circles. But the momentum seems to be continuing. For his part, Assad is saying direct talks could not happen without US involvement – but that this could never happen until a new US President takes office. (No surprise there…)

I’ve blogged about Syrian – Israeli peace efforts before, but I’ll restate my own two cents for the record: I believe an accord would go a long way to stablize the region, improve the climate for Israeli-Palestinian talks, and further mitigate the influence of Iran. Is Assad serious? There’s only one way to find out. As I am fond of saying, where there’s talk, there’s hope.

Click here for an AP article on the latest developments.