If Not Now, When?

Contributing to the Times of Israel, Rabbi Arthur Waskow offered, loosely speaking, an alternative to American military intervention in Syria.

US Military Intervention in Syria & Jewish Law: If Not Now, When?  Or Something Else?
Public Domain image from the US Air Force via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t understand the last line’s placement in this article. It doesn’t belong there.  “If not now, when?”  I’ll try to answer the question in a direct response, anyway.

  • If gas masks would not meet the need, drop antidotes to the nerve gas Sarin, sending instructions in Arabic by radio and social media.

  • Test out what would happen if the US invited physicians to be parachuted into Syria, as brave as the soldiers that some US politicians want to send.

I would argue that sending 10,000 doctors and 100,000 vials of antidote won’t protect Syrian civilians from chemical weapons. The unpredictability of the next strike makes their deployment a waste. Such a strategy also isn’t really a strategy. It’s a reactionary approach to conflict which has usually exacerbated killing in the past – the deployment of peacekeepers, observers and volunteers has assuaged the concern of foreign countries. They offer no resistance or challenge to the human-rights-violating parties at war.

Their presence often signals that no one else is willing, able or sympathetic enough to do anything about mass killings by conventional or chemical means. Plus, your complete lack of cohesive strategy for deploying medical-only units has no hope for success and only makes those doctors defenseless targets for arrest, torture, rape and slaughter at the hands of whatever force captures them, as has happened as recently as August 2013 in countries like Somalia.

If our own government pushes us over the edge of that precipice, the real losers will be the American and Syrian peoples.

This statement is extremely inappropriate and arrogant considering that the Syrian people have been well over the edge for two years.  Sending in the troops isn’t pretty, but the complete lack of military intervention until this point has led to 100,000 dead Syrians, at least 1,500 of them by chemical assault.  I cannot help but think at this point this article functions more like American political rhetoric than a practical alternative to military intervention. The American people would lose a lot of money with an aerial wave of attacks, but the Syrian people would not lose anything close to what they’ve lost already.

So while your words, Rabbi, might placate someone who wants to hear a message of peace and pacifism from their shepherds, your words bring no comfort to anyone but American Main Street who want to feel good about ignoring a massive genocidal event. If the war were to spread to Israel or Turkey, many Americans would love to hear your approach to the expanded conflict because it involves no effort from them whatsoever (well, at least no one but the thousands of unarmed doctors parachuted into the war zone).

That’s where the US is in regard to Syria: All the “official” choices — from Do Nothing to One Strike to Overthrow the Regime – are destructive to us, to the Syrian people, to the US Constitution, and/or to international law.

Never mind for a moment that Barack Obama just went to Congress to ask for a mandate of war (in line with the US Constitution).

Your solution is just an alternative version of “Do Nothing.” So I ask you, if this isn’t the time to put a foot down and deter chemical weapon assaults, then when is?

One More Thing

So we may after all be standing on our tiptoes at the very edge of the precipice of still another immoral, illegal, unwinnable, self-destructive war.

P.S., the unqualified use of the term “immoral” for military intervention against Bashar al-Assad is in my very humble opinion, extremely irresponsible; particularly coming from someone with the title of Rabbi.  What we are contending with is whether or not to launch a military attack to 1) restore a deterrence against unconventional weapons use and 2) eroding the more powerful side’s ability to wage war so as to lower its apparent intensity between the two primary combative sides (two being a loose number here).

So, if trying to deter chemical weapons use before they come to be used more often is an immoral thing, then I might just be an immoral person for thinking there’s something compassionate and sensible to the idea.

I, personally, don’t like to make statements without being straightforward about my own opinion to begin with, but in this case I felt these words were much more important than revealing how indecisive I’ve personally been about an American attack against the Syrian military.

Jewish Law of Military Intervention

I could cite Jewish legal argument after Jewish legal argument to support and oppose a military intervention.  However, given that ultimately Jewish law concerns itself with the preservation of life to the point that it abjures major practices in order to ensure a life can be saved, I would imagine the decision on intervention’s morality vis-a-vis Judaism lies in which argument wins out: would military intervention and containment create/restore a deterrent that prevents the conflict from relying increasingly on unconventional weapons, or would military intervention of that kind be the very spiraling out of control that everyone is concerned about preventing?  I will have a hard time answering the question, so I hope that whatever hard-thought answer I come to isn’t arbitrarily labeled as “immoral” by someone who refuses to appreciate the severity of the issue.

Better phrased, to directly quote Michael Broyde of Emory University on the topic as regards Jewish tradition:

In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work. Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse. Options that bring peace and protect the innocent are to be favored when reasonable people think that they are likely to work in fact.

So, in conclusion, one cannot monopolize the definition of morality (much less immorality) nor legality and illegality when the topic is as untested and subjective as this one is: the military intervention into a military conflict to contain it before its unconventional nature spirals out of control.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.