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Jews should not ignore the plight of Syrian civil war refugees

A Syrian civil war refugee speaks to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as he visits the Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan on July 18, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.
A Syrian civil war refugee speaks to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as he visits the Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan on July 18, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.

Not for the first time, events elsewhere in the Middle East—the renewed bloodshed in Egypt and Israel’s decision to release 104 Palestinian terrorists because of American pressure—have pushed the Syrian civil war out of the limelight. But in the limelight is where it belongs.

Given that we are facing a humanitarian crisis on a scale not witnessed since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the seeming indifference towards the continuing slaughter of Syrian civilians, along with the numerous accounts of rape and torture carried by those fleeing the fighting, is a none-too-edifying reflection of where our priorities as a society lie. During a week in which United Nations inspectors traveled to Syria to investigate serious allegations of chemical weapons use, that old chestnut known as “war fatigue” seems to have trumped our better instincts once again.

The Jewish community, normally responsive to humanitarian emergencies, has sadly not been immune. Indeed, the contrast between our response to the Syrian civil war now, and our response to the war waged by the Sudanese regime in the Darfur region almost a decade ago, is striking.

From 2004 onwards, American Jews mobilized to counter the Darfur genocide. Many of us will recall that numerous synagogues and JCCs across the country were draped in banners calling attention to the horrors in Darfur. As a community, we invoked our own past experiences of murder and persecution to underline the moral imperative of preventing further ethnic cleansing.

The April 2006 rally for Darfur in Washington, DC was a particularly proud moment. Largely organized by Jewish groups, the rally brought thousands of people onto The Mall, where they heard speeches from celebrities like actor George Clooney and the then presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.

Fast forward to Syria in our own time, however, and nothing remotely comparable to the Darfur response is visible. In terms of understanding why this is the case, there are some deceptively obvious explanations. The region-wide spectacle of repressive, authoritarian governments combating Islamist insurgents has led many Jews to wish for a plague on both houses. Moreover, Syria’s historic record of enmity towards Israel, as well as the rife discrimination suffered by its small Jewish community, means that we are not particularly well-disposed to the country in the first place.

Ironically, the same logic could have also been applied in Darfur. After all, Sudan, a member of the Arab League, is a historic enemy of Israel. And while the perpetrators of the Darfur massacres were Muslims, so were the vast majority of the victims: remember that Islamist factions were present among the armed groups combating the onslaught of the Sudanese army and its ally, the notorious janjaweed militia.

Fortunately, not everyone has abandoned hope that Jews in America and elsewhere will open their hearts and pockets to the plight of Syrian refugees. Last week, a coalition of 16 Jewish groups announced the formation of the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan. The coalition has already dispatched $200,000 to humanitarian groups working on the ground, and it plans to raise further funds for the provision of food, clean water, shelter and similar basic requirements.

When it comes to Syria, said Georgette Bennett, a philanthropist and inter-faith activist who kick-started the Coalition, “We’re not talking about an enemy state, but about people in a devastating situation who have fled that state.”

“It’s extremely important to separate the politics of the region from the humanitarian crisis,” the feisty Bennett told me in a telephone interview. “We need to focus on the refugees, not the war.”

Bennett explained that the Coalition is focusing on the Syrian refugees in Jordan because the Hashemite Kingdom “is really feeling the brunt of this crisis.” Of the 1.6 million refugees who have fled Syria, around 500,000 have arrived in Jordan. By the end of this year, that number is expected to reach around one million. When you factor in the 500,000 refugees from Iraq currently residing in Jordan, it is clear that the very stability of the country is at stake, and as I noted in this column in early July, we cannot expect Jordan’s record of surviving as a sovereign state against the odds to continue indefinitely.

While Bennett’s appeal to the Jewish community is principally based on moral imperatives, she too observes that important strategic considerations in Jordan are at stake. “A destabilized Jordan is not a good thing for Israel, and Jews need to keep this in mind,” she said. “So while our focus is entirely on the humanitarian aspect, it’s very important that we as Jews realize that there are pragmatic reasons for doing this.” That view, Bennett pointed out, is shared by key American political leaders such as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who declared back in April that if the Syrian civil war didn’t end soon, the king of Jordan “is going to be a casualty.”

Bearing in mind the oft-repeated conspiracy theory that Jewish groups seized upon the Darfur genocide to divert attention from the Palestinian question, I asked Bennett whether the new relief coalition would wear its Jewish origins front and center.

“We’re not hiding the fact,” she answered. “HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) is involved as HIAS, World Jewish Relief is there as World Jewish Relief.” Citing the injunction in the Torah not to stand idly by “while the blood of your neighbor is shed,” Bennett firmly believes that the presence of Jewish humanitarian organizations can contribute, at least in a small way, to breaking down some of the barriers erected through the war waged against Jews and Israel by the Arab states.

While it’s unlikely that Jewish advocacy on behalf of Syrian refugees will reach the heights of the Darfur campaign, the new coalition is a welcome and much-needed development for two reasons. First, it is making a valuable contribution to the overstretched resources available for refugee relief. Second, its actions and focus represent a salutary reminder that Syria’s fate is critical to the overall political health of the Middle East.

Complacency or aloofness should not allow us to forget that.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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