Yesterday’s attack in Syria is still shrouded in mystery, and it is yet unclear just who hit Assad’s army base, killing four Iranian nationals. But whereas we don’t yet know if Israel is indeed, as rumored, behind the operation, we do know that its chief rabbi has called out for swift intervention against the genocidal regime in Damascus.
“I have said in the past and I will say it again, what’s happening in Syria is genocide of women and children in its cruelest form, using weapons of mass destruction,” Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, said in a statement on Sunday. “We have a moral obligation not to keep quiet and to try and stop this massacre.”
Rabbi Yosef’s strong and unequivocal call is one that should be loudly applauded. It is hardly necessary to explain why words are not enough, and why Jews should and must demand strong action from our governments—whether in Israel or America—against a government that gasses its own people.
It is a shameful blot on the moral conscience of American Jews that our communal leaders were largely silent about the genocide in Syria, in large part out of the desire not to offend President Obama, whose policy of non-intervention to stop genocide made a mockery of America’s claim to global leadership at the same time as it advanced his goal of reaching a dubious nuclear deal with Iran. The fact that the same American Jewish leaders have largely chosen to stay silent under President Trump only accentuates the appearance of a community that is willing to countenance genocide, whether of the current Syrian anti-Sunni ilk or the promised Iranian anti-Jewish variety, in the interests of not offending the powerful. That the chief rabbi understands our Jewish moral and historical obligation to speak out against such abominations is a blessing.
Rabbi Yosef’s voice, sadly, has not always been as inspiring as it was this weekend. Last month, the rabbi made inexcusable statements referring to African Americans as monkeys for which he was widely, sharply, and deservedly criticized, including by Tal Kra-Oz at Tablet. Words, like bullets, can wound, and words that suggest that any group is sub-human have historically been precursors to discrimination, violence, and even to genocide itself.
Yet history also shows us that the confusion of words and bullets can itself be dangerous. Words are not weapons, just as social and economic discrimination are not the same as gassing people to death in Damascus or at Auschwitz. The equivalence of social unpleasantness or mental anguish, however structurally and historically embedded, with the twitching limbs of little children whose nervous systems have been overcome by chlorine or sarin gas is simply, and wildly, false. Worse, it often leads to the particularly ugly form of self-regarding moral paralysis in which much of our community now finds itself trapped.
A morally-minded community would’ve taken the time to rightly praise Yosef for his comments on Syria, just it rightly blasted him for his earlier racist pronouncements. That the latter received headlines the world over while the former barely merited a brief report in the Jewish press is a serious moral failing unto itself. If we summon the gales of outrage for anything offending our progressive sensibilities but fail to do more than shrug our shoulders as hundreds of thousands of human beings are methodically murdered in front of our eyes, we’re the true monsters.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.