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Helping Syria War Victims Poses Special Challenges for Jews and Israelis

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.

“By the time we were done, more than half the people had tears in their eyes,” Kahana recalled. He has since visited seven New Jersey synagogues and plans to expand his activity to New York and Washington synagogues, as well, hoping to widen the circle of American Jews supporting Syrian refugees.

Moti Kahana

“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.

“We’ve been kind of relegated to doing advocacy, not operational work,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization dealing regularly with refugees worldwide. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which in the past has led the Jewish community’s international relief efforts, has also stayed away from the Syrian crisis, as have American Jewish World Service and the federation system.

Kahana, a 45-year-old Israeli-born entrepreneur, said he became active on the Syrian issue after thinking about his own family’s Holocaust experience. Local collaborators in Romania murdered members of his father’s family during the Nazi occupation. “People said: ‘So what? A few Jews were murdered in the street,’ and for me, I didn’t want people to say again: ‘So what? A few Syrians were killed.’”

Born in Jerusalem, Kahana lost his father at a young age and grew up in boarding schools. A self described “serial entrepreneur, Kahana came to the United States after his army service and settled in New Jersey. He launched a successful business career, first in online retailing, then in the film industry, and eventually he sold an idea to a national car rental company.

Early in his attempts to help he joined forces with opposition activists in the United States and turned to the Jewish community for support. At first, the money raised, a sum he estimates at more than $300,000, was mainly given through a small Israeli organization providing supplies to refugees along the border and even inside Syria. Activists involved in the work have been asked not to mention the group by name out of fear for the safety of its members.

Kahana visited Syria and the refugee camps several times. With the help of local opposition activists, he entered the city of Idlib through the nearby Turkish border and met with internally displaced Syrians, many of them from Aleppo. Kahana also worked with refugees that fled to camps in Jordan. “I said I am an American Jew,” he recalled, “and when they asked me about my accent, I said it was a Romanian accent.”

Kahana has no illusions that a few aid trucks and a word of encouragement will erase years of engrained animosity between Syrians and Israelis. But he does see it as part of his mission to show Syrians the other Israel. “I don’t think the kid that I helped will come with me to Tel Aviv tomorrow to eat shawarma, but at least he’ll know there are other Israelis,” he said during a recent interview on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Kahana, wrapped in a scarf bearing the symbols of the Syrian opposition flag, said that when speaking to Syrian friends in the United States he pulls out his phone and shows a photo posted on Facebook by his brother, a reserve medic in the Israeli army. It shows him treating an injured Syrian refugee in the Golan Heights. “I show it to my friends and tell them, ‘This is what we Israelis do,’” he said.

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.”

But so far, Jewish communal organizations are working within coalitions only to support international aid to Syria. Syrian activists in the United States are still hopeful that they’ll see their Jewish involvement step up.

“The Jewish American community here has always supported humanitarian causes and has always stood by the right thing, and I hope they’ll continue to do so,” said Mouaz Moustafa, political director of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force.

In the meantime, individual activists like Kahana are trying to fill the gap. Kahana intends to head back to the region later in May to promote a new project of his that is focused on micro-financing opportunities for Syrian women refugees, a project that is funded by Jewish American donors.

He need not fear that his efforts are going unnoticed. Recent reports about his work, posted on an Israeli news website, have earned Kahana an unflattering mention on Assad’s Facebook page. Under a photo of him in a Syrian opposition scarf is a caption describing Kahana as the “Jewish Israeli” who is helping the rebels. The attention from Assad proved, however, to be valuable in raising money and attention, as Kahana received invitations from several Gulf countries to visit and discuss ways of helping Syrian refugees.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter,@nathanguttman

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