Navigate to News section

Holocaust Museum Pulls Study Absolving Obama Administration for Inaction in Face of Syrian Genocide

Abrupt decision comes in wake of sharp rebukes, bafflement, and concern about politicization of Shoah memory

Armin Rosen
September 06, 2017
Photo: J.M. Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers wear protective gear during a class of how to respond to a chemical attack, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 15, 2013.Photo: J.M. Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: J.M. Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers wear protective gear during a class of how to respond to a chemical attack, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 15, 2013.Photo: J.M. Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

A major United States Holocaust Memorial Museum study of the Obama Administration’s Syria policy was put on hold last night after portions of the study given to Tablet were greeted with shock and harsh criticism by prominent Jewish communal leaders and thinkers.

According to a publicity email sent by the Museum, the study was set to be launched at an event at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., on September 11 and was overseen by a former US intelligence and national security official under Obama, Cameron Hudson, now director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The paper argued that “a variety of factors, which were more or less fixed, made it very difficult from the beginning for the US government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria, even compared with other challenging policy contexts.” Using computational modeling and game theory methods, as well as interviews with experts and policymakers, the report asserted that greater support for the anti-Assad rebels and US strikes on the Assad regime after the August 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack would not have reduced atrocities in the country, and might conceivably have contributed to them.

The intervention of the Holocaust Museum in a hot-button political dispute—and the apparent excuse of official US government inaction in the face of large-scale mass murder, complete with the gassing of civilians and government-run crematoria—alarmed many Jewish communal figures. “The first thing I have to say is: Shame on the Holocaust Museum,” said Leon Wieseltier, the literary critic and fellow at the Brookings Institution, who slammed the Museum for “releasing an allegedly scientific study that justifies bystanderism.”

The Museum’s exercise in counter-factual history, he suggested, was inherently absurd. “If I had the time I would gin up a parody version of this that will give us the computational-modeling algorithmic counterfactual analysis of John J McCloy’s decision not to bomb the Auschwitz ovens in 1944. I’m sure we could concoct the fucking algorithms for that, too.”

While examining the US’s response to the conflict arguably falls within the Museum’s stated purpose of “inspiring citizens and leaders to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity,” it is unclear how producing work that could be used to justify or excuse official inaction in the face of war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria squares with that mission. Since the outbreak of civil war early 2011, the Syrian dictator has repeatedly attacked civilians with poison gas, maintaining a network of prison camps where as many as 60,000 people have been tortured, murdered, and disappeared, with their bodies dumped into crematoria and mass graves.

“I assume the leadership understands that it made a misstep,” said Abraham Foxman, the director of the Center of the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the History. “I served three times on the Holocaust Commission. The institution is very dear to my heart. And I believe that it’s appropriate—indeed, it’s imperative—for the Museum deal with questions of genocide in contemporary current events. But in this case, several things are happening that are problematic. First, the genocide isn’t over. In the case of Rwanda and Bosnia, for example, the genocides were over and the Museum was able to offer its assessment in hindsight. Two, more broadly I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Museum to issue this kind of judgement—that’s beyond its mandate. This should be a place where one meets to discuss, to debate, to question, to challenge: Could more have been done? Where? How? Not to issue judgment, especially not in this politicized atmosphere.”

Some Jewish communal leaders suggested both privately to Tablet, and in conversations with board members and staff at the Holocaust Museum, that the Museum’s moral authority had been hijacked for a partisan re-writing of recent history, and alleged that the museum had absolved the Obama administration of any moral or political error in its response to mass atrocities in Syria. At least one of the architects of the Obama administration policy in Syria, former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, was appointed to the museum’s Memorial Council during the closing days of the Obama administration. The Council also includes Obama NSC alumni Grant Harris and Daniel Benjamin. Other Obama NSC alumni, including Hudson and Anna Cave, have joined the Museum’s staff.

The Museum apparently undertook its Syria project without the usual degree of input from Washington’s community of Syrian activists who had worked with the Holocaust Museum to bring the Ceasar files and video from the besieged city of Aleppo to light. Given that the Museum had previously worked hard to expose Syrian government atrocities, members of the anti-Assad community found the counterfactuals report to be curiously out of character for the museum, and objected to the report’s seeming vindication of US policy.

“If the reports are saying that nothing could have been done for Syria, this is something that every Syrian American I know considers grossly incorrect,” Shlomo Bolts, a policy and advocacy officer with the Syrian American Council noted to me. “There was a lot that could have been done and that can still be done to stop the mass atrocities in Syria. There are still thousands of civilians in Syria who are being tortured in Assad’s jails or fear imminent attacks by Assad forces and there is much that can be done to help them.”

On Monday and Tuesday, Tablet reached out to over 20 members of the Museum’s Memorial Council. Daniel Benjamin said that the Syria project predated his appointment to the board in January of 2017, and added he had not been briefed on the report’s background. No one else on the board, including multiple other Obama-era administration foreign policy officials, was willing to discuss the report, with several members saying that they had little specific familiarity with the study or the issues it discussed.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Jews for Human Rights in Syria, who has worked with the Holocaust Museum and the Syrian community, said he was baffled by the report. “When the presidential commission on the Holocaust decided the Museum should also include a committee on conscience, the idea was that they should not merely preserve Holocaust memory but be a force to helping prevent future genocides and mass atrocities,” he explained. “To merely say no intervention could have made a difference strikes me as a strange conclusion if I understand it correctly…. I don’t think we have the right to choose inaction when we know the reality on the ground.”

As of around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, anyone who wants to read the study is now greeted with this message: “Last week the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide released a research study that examined several decision points during the Syrian conflict. ​Since its release, a number of people with whom we have worked closely on Syria since the conflict’s outbreak have expressed concerns with the study. The Museum has decided to remove the study from its website as we evaluate this feedback.​”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.