Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Failing the Kurds is a failure of Justice

Recall the words on page 328 of our Gates of Repentance machzors.

Failures of Justice
We sin against You when we sin against ourselves.
For our failures of justice, O G-d, we ask forgiveness.

For Keeping the poor in chains of poverty,
And Turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed

For using violence to maintain our power,
And for using violence to bring about change.

For waging aggressive war,
And for the sin of appeasing aggressors.

For obeying criminal orders,
And for the sin of silence and indifference.”[1]

This week, the president announced his intention to pull all US forces out of Northern Syria. This decision will have unprecedented consequences. For nearly ten years, Syria has existed in four subdivisions. One belongs to the Syrian Arab Republic, one to the Interim Government, one to the Islamic State, and one to the Syrian Democratic council. The Syrian Democratic Council, under polyethnic governance, comprised of Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and secular Muslims, will be directly impacted by this move.  Victimized by ISIS, as well as Turkey, in what should be described and recognized as acts of genocide, the population of Northern Syria is deeply worried.

In 2014, Turkey famously stood by and watched, as a bystander, for weeks, while Korbani, a major city in northern Syria was bombarded and other Kurdish cities fell to ISIS. As the Yezidi population was massacred, again, Turkey stood by and did nothing.  Rather, Turkey must be regarded as responsible for the methodical and genocidal elimination of much of Syria’s Assyrian Christian population.

As we enter into this New Year, I call upon us all, as Jews, to recommit ourselves to the words of our Machzor. As a people, we have endured unspeakable suffering, including the Holocaust and Pogroms. It is a stain on our legacy that neither our people nor Israel has stood, side by side, with our Armenian brothers and sisters, with our Assyrian brothers and sisters, with our Kurdish brothers and sisters. Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds comprise a healthy percentage of Northern Syria’s population. Many are already refugees. We must protect them. We must affirm the reality of their genocides and suffering. Turkey has yet to reconcile relations with any polity.  Their governing body still professes that there was no Armenian Genocide, no Assyrian Genocide, and no Kurdish genocide. It is time for Israel and the American Jewish population to press this issue.

How? לא תעמוד מנגד, אלא ניתן להצילו בנפשו של רודף. (“Do not stand by idly but go to his [your fellow man’s] assistance”). Rashbam’s commentary offers useful insight into the situation going on north of Israel.  We must not stand idly by, simply watching as our neighbors are systematically killed. Israel has, in the past, increased the number of refugees allowed into the country for medical treatment. Elsewhere, Jewish voices calling for action need our support.[2]

In 2017, a Canadian-based group of Holocaust survivors told a crowd in Toronto that the international community must act and indict those responsible for mass deaths in Syria. In an interview, Howard Chandler, the organization’s representative, called on the international community to intervene in Syria before it is too late.[3]

Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies and the person who brought the survivors’ group together, remarked, “If we don’t speak out, and speak out forcefully, against these atrocities, I’m concerned it’s going to become normalized.”[4]

Israeli geopolitical experts have already stood up against this decision including Dr. Jeremy Spyer and Gregg Roman. In Gregg Roman words, this is “the greatest betrayal of an American ally in the Middle East since the Gulf War. Shame on the American policymakers backing this decision.”[5]

Jewish ideals must summon the international community to step up and save whatever is left of the Syrian civilization, specifically those from Northern Syria, who are endangered.  Defending civilians from slaughter will come at diplomatic, even a potential human cost. However, the cost of doing nothing, as people are slaughtered and the region spirals out of control, is a far greater weight on our souls. [6]

Eli Wiesel, of blessed memory, once wrote, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Wiesel was right.  We cannot stand idle, ‘תַעֲמֹד לֹא” from Syria. For if we do, we are guilty of the sin of appeasing aggressors.[7]

[1] Gates of Repentance. P. 328.

[2] Adaptation taken from Shmuel Polin article.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid


[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.
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