By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org
WASHINGTON - Bipartisan legislation to penalize the Assad regime in Syria has gained widespread support in the Jewish community with one glaring exception, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 (H.R. 5732) would impose sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's government for its atrocities against civilians, facilitate the prosecution of war crimes and penalize anyone who assists the regime. So far, it has 70 sponsors - 38 Democrats and 32 Republicans. The bill is named after a Syrian dissident, who helped expose Assad's massacres.
The legislation was ready for a vote last month, but the Obama administration "made an eleventh-hour plea to lawmakers to delay" and "water it down,” The Washington Post reported Oct. 6.
The administration is concerned the bill would impose sanctions on Iran if the Iranians continue assisting Assad, according to the Post.
A number of major Jewish organizations are backing the bill, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the American Jewish Committee. But the most prominent pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington appears to remain silent on the issue.
AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman told JNS.org, "We have not taken a position on this legislation,” but declined to explain why. Wittman also turned down a request to interview an AIPAC representative regarding the group's view of the Assad regime without reference to the bill.
In 2013, AIPAC lobbied in favor of Congressional authorization of U.S. airstrikes on Syria and brought pro-Israel activists from around the country to Washington for meetings with more than 300 members of Congress. The difference between AIPAC's effort then, and its hands-off policy toward the Assad regime now, may be that the Obama administration strongly supported the 2013 measure. Although that bill was passed, Obama did not launch airstrikes.
Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), which is actively supporting the legislation, said, “I’m delighted that so many Jewish organizations are supporting the Caesar civilian protection bill. But I’m profoundly disappointed that AIPAC is not among them. For a people with our history, there is no excuse for not feeling the moral imperative to stop Assad. I understand there may be those who are worried about upsetting the Obama administration. But the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are at stake."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JNS.org his organization "strongly supports" the bill. He cited a remark by the late Simon Wiesenthal when the international community refused to challenge Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds: “Tyrants will draw their own conclusions when the world fails to react to their barbarities.”
American Jewish Committee's director of media relations Kenneth Bandler praised the Caesar Act for attempting to "establish urgent and long-overdue provisions to protect the lives of innocent Syrian citizens and put more pressure on the murderous Assad regime." Bandler added, "the AJC regrets that this bill appears to be stalled."
The National Council of Young Israel also supports the legislation. "This bill is an important bipartisan statement that the violations of war crimes will have significant and immediate consequences," the group’s president Farley Weiss told JNS.org. "We know the alternative to this bill is the continuation of the current situation, which is clearly unacceptable."
The Union for Reform Judaism's Washington arm, the Religious Action Center, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to back the legislation, calling it "a great non-military tool with which we can protect Syrian lives." The Religious Action Center’s director Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner also sent a letter to Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), urging an immediate vote on the bill. In addition, the Orthodox social justice group, Uri L'Tzedek, recently organized a letter to Pelosi, signed by 52 rabbis from all demoninations, endorsing the legislation.
Christian pro-Israel groups, including the Hispanic Israel Leadership Conference (HILC) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), are also supporting the legislation. CUFI board member David Brog said, "We simply don't understand why anyone concerned about human lives and human rights in Syria would oppose [it]; how many Syrians must be sacrificed to President Obama and Secretary Kerry's fantasies about Iran?”
The legislation’s future remains unclear.
The bill was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July.
While Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the bill's author, has said he is "negotiating with the administration" on its terms, Pelosi, who recently met with two Syrian dissidents, told them there was “little to no chance the bill would be voted on this year,” the Post reported.