To many of us who follow the news from the Middle East closely, the events of the last few weeks have hit like a deluge of despair and hopelessness. From the escalating violence in Egypt (at least 38 dead and increasing governmental instability according to The New York Times) to the “random, savage and relentless violence” taking place as jihadist groups in Syria continue to flex their destructive muscles (as described by The Guardian), it seems as if regional conflict and acts of terror in the region are spiraling out of control. Although instability in the Middle East is nothing new, the recent increase of news coverage concerning international efforts to eradicate chemical weapons from Syria and the US diplomatic efforts unfolding with Iran and Israel (just to name a few) have forced those of us “safely distanced” from the region to reevaluate how we perceive our role in all of this. What role, if any, do we as individuals play in these heavy affairs?
At a recent event held at Cooper Union in New York City by This World, The Jewish Values Network and New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, President of Rwanda Paul Kagame and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel discussed a deceptively simple question that lies at the heart of making sense of our place as global citizens: Do the strong have an obligation to protect the weak? Over 1,500 children have been gassed and over 100,000 people have been killed in the recent conflict in Syria. How does one confront these facts? Does one have an obligation to do anything? To feel anything? Does the US have an obligation to flex its hegemonic muscles in an attempt to right this obvious wrong?
“There has to be a level of accountability, in fact a strong level of accountability,” President Kagame insisted. “If a genocide is taking place or killings are taking place anywhere, even before you really understand or get to the bottom of why the killings are happening you quickly think about how do we stop the killings? … As you do that, or even after doing that, if it is possible, then you can go into these details that will lead you to understanding other things that will be done or the actual basis why the killings were taking place… One thing is very clear: poison gas should not be used anywhere against anybody… You have to deal with the world that we have and things that are there.”
But acknowledging or affirming that such acts are unconscionable and that the international community must take steps to end this violence does not release us from our personal obligation of attempting to mitigate the situation. It is one thing to nod our heads in strong agreement, to shake our fists at the night sky and curse the darkness, and quite another to care.
The vast majority of us have little influence in the day-to-day diplomatic negotiations between countries. How then do we put our conscience at ease? The easiest option (and one we surely all are guilty of) seems to be to proudly proclaim our disapproval and hatred of forces of evil across the world. But in the words of Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “Hatred is too easy, almost. What do you do with it; Ok you hate, and then what? … I believe in anger. Creative anger. Good anger. But hatred, hatred, it has a dynamic. Once somebody starts hating, hatred doesn’t stop. It spreads… I feel it’s not my life and it’s not my way of dealing with history or with my experiences. Once you say hatred is not the answer, then you wonder what is the answer, and there I say ok let’s go and study.”
Simply making our objections known does little in the way of actual progress. Hatred is stagnant, but allowing ourselves to overcome our complacency by “getting angry” and then channeling that energy into creative action will set the tides of change in motion. We have a duty to be educated citizens, to attempt to understand the conflicts to the best of our ability. But we also have an obligation to take action. What this means to each individual is unclear; it may be as simple as calling or writing to members of Congress encouraging them to support current diplomatic efforts, or as big as organizing an event similar to the one held by New York University that raises the collective consciousness. One thing, however, is undeniable: disapproval of evil is not enough. In that crowded auditorium last week as I strained to hear the words of Elie Wiesel, a man who is widely regarded as the living example of channeling the lessons from the horrors of Holocaust into action against forces of evil, I recalled the haunting poem of Martin Niemöller:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
In the Jewish tradition, we are taught, “Lo taamod al dam rékha,” do not stand idly by when our fellow man is being injured. Jew or non-Jew, as human beings, we have an obligation to take action. Let us remember our commitments. In the coming weeks, and in our lives in general, let us not stand idly by. Let us not become discouraged, but rather, let us channel our collective energy into doing all we can to make a difference.