Jews should not ignore plight of refugees from Syrian civil warby Ben Cohen
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Not for the first time, events elsewhere in the Middle East — the renewed bloodshed in Egypt and Israel’s decision to release 104 Palestinian terrorists because of American pressure — have pushed the Syrian civil war out of the limelight. But in the limelight is where it belongs.
Given that we are facing a humanitarian crisis on a scale not witnessed since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the seeming indifference toward the continuing slaughter of Syrian civilians, along with the numerous accounts of rape and torture carried out by those fleeing the fighting, is a disappointing reflection of our society’s priorities. During a week in which United Nations inspectors traveled to Syria to investigate serious allegations of chemical weapons use, “war fatigue” seems to have trumped our better instincts once again.
The Jewish community, normally responsive to humanitarian emergencies, has sadly not been immune. Indeed, the contrast between our response to the Syrian civil war now, and our response to the war waged by the Sudanese regime in the Darfur region almost a decade ago, is striking.
From 2004 on, American Jews mobilized against the Darfur genocide. Many of us recall numerous synagogues and JCCs across the country draped in banners calling attention to the horrors in Darfur. As a community, we invoked our past experiences of murder and persecution to underline the moral imperative of preventing further ethnic cleansing.
The April 2006 rally for Darfur in Washington, D.C., was a particularly proud moment. Largely organized by Jewish groups, the rally brought thousands of people to the mall for speeches by celebrities such as actor George Clooney and then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Fast forward to Syria now, however, and we see nothing remotely comparable to the Darfur response. There are some deceptively obvious explanations. The region-wide spectacle of repressive, authoritarian governments combating Islamist insurgents has led many Jews to wish a plague on both houses. Moreover, Syria’s historical record of enmity towards Israel, as well as the discrimination suffered by its small Jewish community, means we are not particularly well-disposed to the country in the first place.
The same logic could have been applied to Darfur. Sudan, a member of the Arab League, is a historical enemy of Israel. And while the perpetrators of the Darfur massacres were Muslims, so were the vast majority of victims.
Fortunately, not everyone has abandoned hope that Jews in America and elsewhere will open their hearts and pockets to the plight of Syrian refugees. Last week, a coalition of 16 Jewish groups announced the formation
of the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan. The coalition has already dispatched $200,000 to humanitarian groups working on the ground, and it plans to raise further funds for food, clean water, shelter and similar basic requirements.
When it comes to Syria, said Georgette Bennett, a philanthropist and interfaith activist who kick-started the coalition, “We’re not talking about an enemy state, but about people in a devastating situation who have fled that state.”
Bennett explained that the coalition is focusing on the Syrian refugees in Jordan because, of the 1.6 million refugees who have fled Syria, around 500,000 have arrived in Jordan. By the end of this year, that number is expected to reach 1 million. When you add the 500,000 refugees from Iraq now in Jordan, it is clear that the stability of the country is at stake.
“It’s extremely important to separate the politics of the region from the humanitarian crisis,” Bennett told me.
While Bennett’s appeal to the Jewish community is principally based on moral imperatives, she observes that important strategic considerations are also at stake. “A destabilized Jordan is not a good thing for Israel, and Jews need to keep this in mind,” she said. “So while our focus is entirely on the humanitarian aspect, it’s very important that we as Jews realize that there are pragmatic reasons for doing this.”
That view, Bennett pointed out, is shared by key American political leaders such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who declared in April that if the Syrian civil war didn’t end soon, the king of Jordan “is going to be a casualty.”
While it’s unlikely that Jewish advocacy on behalf of Syrian refugees will reach the heights of the Darfur campaign, the new coalition is a welcome and much-needed development for two reasons. First, it is making a valuable contribution to the overstretched resources available for refugee relief. Second, its actions and focus represent a salutary reminder that Syria’s fate is critical to the overall political health of the Middle East.
Complacency or aloofness should not allow us to forget that.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for jns.org, where this essay originally appeared.
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