When Moti Kahana first approached a local synagogue in New Jersey, asking to come and speak about the plight of Syrian refugees, the response was skeptical.
“Are you sure about this?” he was asked. “Who is it we’re going to help there?”
But, as the enthusiastic Israeli-born American Jew tells the story, reaction quickly changed when his colleague, a Syrian opposition activist living in the United States, began to describe the horror of the Syrian civil war: mass murders of whole families, women and daughters being raped, and endless waves of refugees fleeing the country.
“The story touched a nerve with people. They were in tears, standing, cheering, asking questions,” recalled the Syrian opposition figure, who asked to not be named out of fear for his family still living in Syria. He noted that cooperation with American Jews and with Israelis who seek to help Syrian refugees could pose a special danger. “Being part of the opposition is one thing, but having ties with the Israelis is a whole other issue,” he said.
For Israel and for the American Jewish community, this is one of the biggest problems the Syrian crisis poses — the danger that overt gestures of help may only complicate the situation for those in need.
After 26 months of a bloody civil war, international aid groups estimate that more than 1.2 million Syrians have fled the country, most concentrated in overcrowded refugee camps in the bordering countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. With 5,000 to 10,000 refugees leaving their war-torn homeland every day, Syria is emerging as the worst refugee crisis of the decade, adding yet another dimension to the horrific situation of those left inside the country.
Though the American Jewish community and Israel are both known for their quick response to international disasters, neither has responded to this one. The desperate needs of a nation formally at war with Israel have confronted Jews in both places with a dilemma that has rendered their responses extremely cautious and painfully slow.