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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The letter also suggests supplying arms to rebel forces and considering direct attacks against Assad’s regime. Signatories include Jewish activists aligned with the neoconservative camp, such as William Kristol; conservatives, including Elliott Abrams; centrist Joseph Lieberman, and liberal Leon Wieseltier.

Complicating the Jewish response to this crisis is the community’s consideration of Israel’s interests. Even as the community’s reluctance to take the lead in calling for military action has become clear, Israel has made clear its belief that the international community should take action.

Writing on his Facebook wall, Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, called on “Jews of the world” to speak up.

“Don’t remain silent” in face of the killing in Syria, the Cabinet minister exhorted. “The Jewish People, and I, as a minister in the government of the Jewish state, have a special duty to speak up, to yell, so the world will hear and stop ignoring what’s going on in Syria.”

In a call that could be seen as directed only at Washington, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said on August 26 that “Iran is watching, and it wants to see what will be the reaction to the use of chemical weapons.” These comments, alongside similar sentiments expressed by columnists supportive of the Netanyahu government, mark a shift in Israel’s approach to the Syrian civil war, which has been raging for two and half years.

Initially, Israel made clear that it was not taking sides in the conflict. It limited its response to issues directly related to its own security — primarily the use of Syrian land for transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Israel’s change of tone suggests that it now sees a lack of American response to the overt use of chemical weapons as something that would embolden the Syrian president and his allies in Tehran in a way that could be harmful to Israel.

According to press reports in Israel, the administration of the United States made clear to Israel that any military strike would be carried out without having American troops on the ground. This message could ease concerns in Jerusalem that an extensive military campaign in Syria could distract America’s focus from Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Meanwhile, even as it shies away from taking the lead on the military front, the Jewish community has increased its involvement in humanitarian help to victims of the civil war. The Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan has raised and distributed more than $200,000 and is still raising funds in the community. The money has gone to support work done in the Jordanian refugee camps by the Red Crescent, World Jewish Relief, the International Rescue Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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