U.S. Jewish groups use Holocaust guilt to push for Syria strike

A policy decision on American military action in Syria cannot be justified by an analogy between Syrian suffering under Assad and Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. 

Two weeks after a chemical attack in Syria killed at least 1,400, including 400 children, and one week after U.S. President Obama announced he favors a limited military strike on Syria, mainstream American Jewish groups broke their silence Tuesday and expressed what they conveyed as unequivocal support for a strike.

As reported in Politico, AIPAC – the powerful Israel lobby known for being forthright on all issues related to American policy in the Middle East due to its mandate to protect Israeli security interests (i.e. recent backing of military in Egypt  despite massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), was eerily quiet following the Obama administration’s call for a strike. But on Tuesday, it issued a statement stating that, “simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass.” It then made clear that its reasoning for backing a U.S. strike has to do with American policy on Iran:

“Our view is that if this vote goes down, it will be devastating to American credibility and send a very clear message to Iran that they can press the accelerator on moving forward with their program. At this point Assad and Hezbollah are merely franchises for Iran,” as The Daily Beast reported.

However, AIPAC was careful to make sure the word “Israel” was nowhere in the statement, which is peculiar for a lobby that proudly declares itself to be THE “pro-Israel” lobby. The reason, according to several reports, is that AIPAC and other major American Jewish groups wanted to make sure their support for a U.S. strike was seen as strictly in American interests, and not tied to Israeli interests – the fear being that if America does get embroiled in a war in Syria, as it did in Iraq in 2003, Americans will blame American Jews and Israel.

Other mainstream American Jewish groups like the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, quickly followed suit, expressing support for a U.S. strike. The Conference’s hawkish executive vice president of the Conference Malcolm Hoenlin also emphasized the need to “not tie it to Israel.”

ADL chairman Abraham Foxman took a different approach, however, directly connecting the need for the U.S. to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons to what Jews suffered during the Holocaust. According to Bloomberg news:

‘Our people have been exterminated by the use of gas,’ Foxman said. ‘We cannot stand by without a reaction when we see gas being used to kill others.’

A letter urging Congress to authorize American use of force in Syria drafted by 17 American rabbis from across the religious spectrum made an even more adamant and clear comparison to Jewish subjection to gas during World War II.

‘We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps,’ said the letter sent Wednesday, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. ‘We write you as a people who have faced persecution for many centuries, and are glad to have found a safe refuge where we can thrive in the United States.’

The rabbis’ letter also stated that, “through this act, Congress has the capacity to save thousands of lives.” It is entirely unclear how a U.S. strike would in fact save any lives – and in fact, it is clear the use of force will certainly take lives. Neither the rabbis nor the ADL, nor any of the groups for that matter, demonstrate how a U.S. strike can better the situation. Rather, the emphasis is on punishing Assad because, as Foxman put it, there is a “moral imperative” to act.

Beyond the fact that it is problematic at best and hypocritical and deplorable at worst for American Jewish groups to insist on the moral need to act in Syria – while continuing to be complicit in America’s active support of Israel’s 46-year military occupation that exacts daily human rights violations – my question is: why aren’t these American Jewish leaders interested in being a part of a debate about what kind of strategy will actually be effective in Syria?

It would be one thing if American Jews kept it as a condemnation of civilian suffering – but since they are going the policy route, why express support for military action without actually enumerating how it will be effective? A policy decision on American military action in Syria cannot be justified by an analogy between Syrian suffering and Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. The massacre of innocent civilians by their own leader is bad enough and the whole world doesn’t need to have it compared to Jewish suffering to know it’s f–ked up. Do they really believe that by using Holocaust guilt they can justify an American strike on Syria?

By using the Holocaust analogy, American Jews are not only excluding themselves from a genuine debate about what an effective American strategy in Syria could be for the U.S. and for Middle East stability, but are also making it clear that as Jews (and by extension, as regards Israel as well), they have a special status – the status of eternal victims and thus an authority on what is moral and when military force is just.

It is important to note that Israel also expressed support for a U.S. strike, by way of an official statement made by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who assured Americans they should not worry about Israel, as it can defend itself in case of a retaliatory attack by Syria.

While I’m sure many American Jews disagree with this supposed “consensus” on Syria, it would be hard to know, since no other positions have been voiced. J Street, the lobby trying to present an alternative to AIPAC, and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation American Jewish organization, have not issued any formal statements on Syria – which is a real shame.