The Lessons of Aleppo

In 1944, the American government refused to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz. As many as 20,000 Hungarian Jews a day were being transported and murdered at Auschwitz.  The American government denied the ability to undertake such a bombing.  Declassified information from 1965 would present aerial reconnaissance pictures from that time.  These pictures showed Hungarian Jews getting off of transports, as well as damage done to factories within a few miles of Auschwitz which were actually bombed.  In other words, the American government purposely concealed its ability to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz.

It is now generally accepted that had those tracks been bombed, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.

For this and other reasons, the phrase “Never Again!” became a watchword in terms of understanding the significance of the Holocaust. Sadly, that phrase has been overused and has been shown to have very little power within our world.  It is estimated that close to 500,000 lives have been lost in the Syrian Civil War. There more than ten million homeless Syrian refugees in Syrian and eight million refugees from Syria who have fled abroad.

Sadly, the world has been relatively impotent in addressing this problem.

So I find myself asking what lessons can be learned for both Israel and the United States.

First the good. The people of Israel, despite being technically at war with the country of Syria, have mobilized in a significant way on behalf of the Syrians. Over one million shekels have been raised for Syrian children since last week. There have been demonstrations in Tel Aviv including a human chain between the Russian and American Embassy in protest.  More than 3000 Syrian wounded have been brought to Israel to date.  Israeli doctors have volunteered for reserve duty to help in any way that might be needed.

But there is also the bad. What is happened in Aleppo shows that Israel lives in a volatile and savage part of the world.  Many Israelis find themselves asking that if Arabs could do this to each other, what would they do to Israelis if they could?   Now more than ever, there is a feeling that Israel needs to be particularly careful not to enable the creation of an unstable or hostile government on its borders.

In other words, the events in Aleppo not only do not advance the peace process, they may have made the achievement of peace and a two state solution much more difficult.

Syria has now been completely taken over by Iran. The Iranians shipped a massive amount of people and equipment to Aleppo and officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were seen visiting the city. Syrian President Assad has now essentially become a puppet ruler.

Israelis are worried that this victory by Iran will mean that Iran and Hezbollah will now attempt to control the Syrian Golan height which borders on Israel.

Many intelligence analysts feel that this did not need to happen. A few years ago, before the Russians became so involved with air and material support for the Syrians, the Syrian Air Force could have easily been destroyed by the United States. A safe “no fly” zone could have been set up and had the rebels been supplied, many lives could have been saved and the refugee problem would have been significantly lessened.  All that is too late now. The air force that is there is now the Russian air force and because of that there is little opportunity to intervene

Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, wrote last week: “Aleppo’s fate is clear proof that the international community does not exist, and apparently never did, certainly not as far as the civilian population is concerned when it is targeted by a dictatorial regime and its powerful allies. Aside from several limp condemnations or expressions of grief from leaders in Europe and the U.S., the world is silent. For Israel, the lessons to be learned from the fighting in Syria are clear: It must never pin its hopes and stake its future on help from the international community.  The world supports the strong and the victorious. Therefore, it would behoove Israel to strengthen itself in earnest, as a necessary guarantee of its ongoing existence and growth in our region.”

This discussion as of today has become even more timely.  The United Nations has “twiddled its thumbs” while a half million people have been killed in Syria in the last half decade.   While the UN has not breathed a word about Syria, it has had no problem in achieving unanimity in condemning Israel for building “settlements” in its capital city and on the West Bank — construction that, whatever we may think about it, has not involved any loss of life!

Israelis responded with so much humanitarian aid preciously because they understood that in the midst of the slaughter, the rest of the world would be silent.  Having been victims of a genocidal tragedy, the Israeli people, despite the hostilities of those who would be helped, understood that at the very least, something needed to be done.   The horror of Aleppo has once again shown the world that the words, “Never Again!” might simply be a platitude.

For the United States, I am afraid that history will show that when there was an opportunity to help and to do so at a relatively low cost and without putting boots on the ground, the United States government chose not to do so. Hopefully, we will now learn that it is impossible to withdraw from the Middle East or for that matter from the world stage. The lesson is that if the United States is not engaged as a force for good in addressing the problems of the world, tragic and savage loss of life will occur and these problems will come to the United States.

Hopefully, the lessons will be learned by all concerned.

About the Author
Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has served on the Commission of Social Action for Reform Judaism. He has been recognized as one of the “50 Voices for Justice” by the URJ and by the Forward Magazine as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” In March 2015, he organized the National Jewish commemoration in Selma of the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March.