Jewish Community Cautious as U.S. Attack on Syria Looms Large

Echoes of Iraq War Debacle Still Ring in Ears

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By Nathan Guttman

Published August 27, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
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By August 27, Obama seemed poised to strike, ordering warships and an aircraft carrier to move to the region, and authorizing the Pentagon to come up with a variety of plans for a possible military strike aimed at punishing Assad. On August 26, Secretary of State John Kerry called the attacks a “moral obscenity” and said the fact that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people was “undeniable.”

But the Jewish community, often among the first to respond to international human rights violations and war crimes, especially by Arab governments, stuck to a measured response as preparations quickened toward a military strike. Most Jewish groups avoided or delayed issuing public statements on the matter.

“The Jewish community has a long-standing record against the use of nonconventional weapons,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “But just because we may think it is a moral issue to use force to curtail the use of nonconventional weapons, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is always the wise thing to do.”

While wholly rejected by Jewish leaders, the image of American Jews pushing the United States to wars that would benefit Israel, Saperstein said, has led the Jewish community “to be reticent about taking the lead on what should be done, but not about the need for something to be done.”

The American Jewish Committee, while refraining from making public statements on the issue, provided the Forward with a statement expressing limited endorsement to a decision to strike Syria. The AJC focused on Obama’s statement that using chemical weapons would trigger an American response, and said that since it now appears that Assad did use such weapons, “AJC believes that President Obama has no choice but to take action.”

Otherwise, the group warned, the United States would lose its credibility in the region and would thereby send the wrong message to America’s allies and foes.

“We’re not eager to engage the Syria debate per se,” the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, said in an interview. Terming the Syrian issue “very complex and multilayered,” Harris said his group is careful not to call for a “whole new campaign against the Assad regime.”

Jewish activists not affiliated with the major organizations felt a greater sense of freedom. A letter signed by leading thinkers and foreign policy experts urges Obama to “use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons.”


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