Helping Syria War Victims Poses Special Challenges for Jews and Israelis

Fears of Doing More Harm Than Good Sideline Aid Groups

No Easy Task: Victims of Syria’s brutal civil war are languishing in camps inside and outside the country. Jewish groups and individuals want to help, but there are plenty of obstacles.
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No Easy Task: Victims of Syria’s brutal civil war are languishing in camps inside and outside the country. Jewish groups and individuals want to help, but there are plenty of obstacles.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 21, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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But on a broader scale, Israeli activity has been sporadic. A handful of Israeli activists have been helping on the frontlines and have succeeded in doing so mainly by keeping a low profile and making clear that they are not representing Israel.

In 2012, then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman asked the International Red Cross to help in transferring Israeli aid to victims of the civil war in Syria, but the Syrian government turned down the gesture.

More recently, in February, a group of former high-ranking military officers and civilian officials, including former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to set up a field hospital along the border in the Golan Heights to treat Syrians in need. The idea was based on the model of the “good fence” policy that Israel enacted along its border with Lebanon following the country’s civil war in the 1970s. Residents of southern Lebanon were allowed into Israel to work and receive medical treatment there, thus keeping good relations between Israel and the Christian population of the region.

The Israeli government has not adopted a similar wide-scale policy regarding Syria, although unconfirmed press reports noted that the Israeli military did set up a small field hospital along the border to treat injured Syrians who made it into the Golan Heights.

Jewish organizations in the United States face a similar dilemma. With virtually no access into Syria, which is still formally ruled by the Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or to Lebanon, American Jewish relief organizations have very few options for providing direct aid. Turkey, home to more than 300,000 refugees, has strict limitations on the work of international nongovermental organizations. And Jewish groups see Jordan, which absorbed more than 400,000 displaced Syrians, as too risky an area from which to operate.

Instead, HIAS has focused on lobbying Congress for the extension of temporary protective status to Syrians in the United States. The group is also pushing for increased humanitarian aid from from the U.S. government. Further down the road, when resettlement programs for the refugees will be discussed, the group intends to play a more significant role by helping to absorb Syrian refugees in America.

Recently, Jordan’s King Abdullah met with Jewish leaders in Washington and warned of the destabilizing effect the flood of refugees could have on the kingdom and of the difficulty in accommodating the endless flow of fleeing Syrians. But Abdullah, according to participants in the meeting, did not ask Jewish groups to provide assistance to the refugees.

“There is a lot of interest in the Syrian issue,” said Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We’re deeply concerned about the flow of refugees.”


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