After taking a back seat in recent weeks to news from elsewhere in the world, the civil war in Syria is back in newspaper headlines, and the death toll was recently assessed by the United Nations Office of Human Rights at 191,369. We asked Martin Kalin, a trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and executive producer of Red Lines, a documentary film about the role of Syrian activists in the Syrian conflict, how the Jewish community should respond to the crisis.
What responsibility does the American Jewish community have to Syrians, or to get involved in the crisis in Syria? Does the Jewish community have a unique responsibility, and if so, why?
For the last three years, the world has been shockingly silent. There have been scant protests in Europe, only a trickle of tweets from the front lines and virtually no action by world leaders. Yet, in this short time, over 170,000 Syrians have been killed and more than 10 million civilians have been displaced, making the situation in Syria the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. The Jewish people were abandoned during the Holocaust. We’re angered that it wasn’t ‘strategic” to bomb the railway lines carrying Jews to the death camps. If we’re outraged by our own government’s fateful decision not to act, then we do have a unique responsibility to do what we can to stop other crimes against humanity. The Jewish people should honor its tradition of humanitarian activism to help others in need. Humanitarian activism is what we do and is consistent with our values, ethics and commandments. Also, if we lead on the humanitarian front, I’m confident non-Jews will follow.
Given the current situation in Israel, what should be the top priority of the American Jewish community? Does the situation in Israel change anything about Jewish responsibility in Syria?
The American Jewish community can and should multitask. No doubt the current situation in Israel and Gaza complicates efforts by the American Jewish community to assist Syrian refugees. One question I’m often asked is whether Syrian refugees would even accept American Jewish help. The answer is that it’s already happening, albeit on a small, but growing scale.
The Arab world is not as monolithic as we may assume. Not all Syrians support or are happy with Hamas. Syrians are dealing with their own extremists such as ISIS and thus are wary of the ambitions of political Islamic groups such as Hamas. A growing number of Syrians are angry and frustrated with the media and international humanitarian organizations for their intense focus on the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, while ignoring the ongoing plight of the Syrian people, even though the casualties in Syria are 150 times greater than in Israel and Gaza. As surprising it may seem, the bottom line is that many Syrians would welcome American Jewish humanitarian support, regardless of the current situation in Israel and Gaza.
What specific steps should American Jews take to aid Syrians?
American Jews should support reputable NGOs that are assisting Syrian refugees. One example is the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR), which has raised and donated more than $600,000 for Syrian refugees in Jordan to date. JCDR is comprised of 16 Jewish organizations and is managed under the umbrella of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Until now, the JCDR has limited their work to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Another reputable organization is a DC based NGO called “People Demand Change.” This organization sends aid to displaced persons within Syria, where it’s needed most. American Jews can also give support through an Israeli organization called “Israeli Flying Aid”, which is run by an Israeli woman named Gal Lusky. Another active Jewish organization is a UK based organization called World Jewish Relief. The contact information for all of these foregoing mentioned organizations can be found on the Internet. And finally, American Jews should support politicians on both sides of the isle that would like to do more to help the Syrian people, but are afraid to do so due to the growing isolationist feelings among their constituents. We Americans tend to go from one extreme to another when it comes to international problems. There is a creative middle ground between boots on the ground, that no one wants, and doing virtually nothing, which has been the US policy until recently.
Are any Syrians speaking directly to the Jewish community?
The American Joint Distribution Committee and Georgette Bennett founder of the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, with my assistance, arranged speaking engagements for this Syrian activist in New York and Washington DC. His name is Ahmed Amin. He‘s currently helping Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. He’ll be returning in September and will be available for speaking engagements. His next project is to open a medical clinic in Bulgaria to serve Syrian refugees. He’s currently seeking an American Jewish organization or family foundation to help establish and underwrite the clinic. To foster humanitarian diplomacy, he wants to prominently and proudly display the name of the Jewish organization’s or family foundation on the door of the clinic that underwrites the clinic, as he wants other Syrians to see Jews as he now does — as compassionate people who care and who are not the enemy of the Syrian people. In a recent speaking engagement, Amin Ahmed said the following: “We were taught to hate the Jews and Zionists and to kill them before they kill us… . Israel is not the enemy… We need to have an effort by everyone to show [that if Syrians] suffer, that [others] care regardless of … religion or race or ethnicity and that people will be there if [the Syrian people] are suffering….This is the way to change their [the Syrian people’s] minds. But if [you] just sit and do nothing, you’re going to continue this cycle of hate, that is never going to end. We have had this for 2,000 years and if we don’t change it we will have it for another 2,000 years. And your children and our grandchildren will suffer. We have this big tragedy [which can be] an opportunity [for peace]. To show that we are all human and to send a message of hope.”