A group of American rabbis are taking on Nancy Pelosi and the White House over one of the thorniest issues in international politics.
On September 28, a letter from 40 rabbis and nine rabbinic organizations was sent to the office of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, urging her to allow a vote on the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The law, which New York Democrat Eliot Engel introduced in July, is named after the Syrian regime defector who, in mid-2014, provided photographic evidence of the extent of human rights abuses committed in the Assad regime’s prison system. The bill would authorize sanctions against various members of Bashar al-Assad’s government, as well as against foreign supporters of his regime. It would also allow the U.S. to provide evidence in future Syria-related war crimes trials.
The rabbis’ letter to Pelosi, which was sent the morning of September 28, argues for the moral and political urgency of allowing a vote on the Caesar bill. “Our teacher Elie Wiesel taught us that wherever there is suffering, that is the center of the world,” the letter states. “Syria is the center of the world today. Each day, we open our newspapers to see distressing images of more wailing and injured children in the city of Aleppo, which is now experiencing the worst air attacks of the entire Syrian conflict.”
This past week was one of the bloodiest of the entire Syria conflict, with Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes killing over 1,000 people in Aleppo alone.
The bill made it out of committee in a Republican-controlled House and currently has 70 co-sponsors, most of whom are Democrats. But as Josh Rogin of The Washington Post reported on September 20, the Obama administration was concerned that the bill could jeopardize the U.S.’s ever-precarious Syria diplomacy, and prevented the bill moving forward. Rogin reported that the White House had “worked behind the scenes” to delay a vote, and that “White House legislative affairs staffers began calling leadership in both parties urging them to shelve the legislation” in the days after the announcement of a U.S. and Russia-brokered “cessation of hostilities” in the country. The ceasefire in Syria is over, but Pelosi still hasn’t chosen to suspend regular procedure on the bill. If the bill was considered under regular procedure it would be to subject a time-consuming rules committee review and amendment process, so Pelosi’s inaction effectively postpones a vote for an indefinite period of time.
Some of the biggest names in the American rabbinic scene endorsed the letter, whose signatories include the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Committee and Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Movement’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical Council. As Phoenix-based rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the organizer of the letter, the founder or Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, and a founder of Jews for Human Rights in Syria explained, the experience of the Holocaust is one of the factors that should spur Jews to action on Syria. “We see it as our greatest calling as Americans in the 21st century to stand up against mass atrocities,” Yanklowitz said.
The letter notes the rabbis’ “dismay… that you are directly responsible for preventing a vote on the bill,” and then closes by invoking the upcoming high holidays:
In just a few days, we will attend Rosh Hashanah prayer services at packed synagogues and read the humbling words, “As a shepherd herds his flock beneath his staff, so does [God] shepherd, count, number, and consider the souls of all creatures…and decree their fate.” We urge you, at this crucial time: Do not turn away from the wails of children! Do not delay a vote that could save sacred lives! Please allow a vote today.
The Caesar bill would be the first major sanctions authorization law related to the Syrian conflict since the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012. A lot has happened since those early days of the war, including the deaths of an additional 400,000 people, and the displacement of some 11 million more. The bill would expand sanctions beyond the top level of the Assad regime, and would make foreign supporters of the Syrian government’s war machine eligible for the American blacklist as well. For the bill’s scores of bipartisan cosponsors—a group that includes progressives like Keith Ellison, and Tea Party favorites like Mia Love—sanctioning Assad’s international partners is a morally and strategically prudent move, reflecting the realities of an internationalized conflict. On September 29, for instance, French ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud pointedly tweeted his belief that “what the Russians and Syrians are doing in Aleppo is sickening.” Some of the factors sustaining Syria’s civil war originate far beyond the country’s discrete national borders, and the Caesar bill would adjust the existing US sanctions regime to this now-obvious aspect of the conflict.
But the bill presents diplomatic complications that the Obama Administration doesn’t want at the moment. As Rogin reported, “Some of the congressional officials who worked on the bill believe the administration is intentionally trying to delay it because the White House opposes placing strong pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” The Caesar bill is caught in an unusual procedural limbo, with a Democratic White House putting a hold on a mostly Democratic-supported human rights bill. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has the ability to break the impasse, and send the bill to an almost-immediate vote.
Non-controversial foreign policy related bills are often passed under a suspension of House procedure, something which can be done through the agreement of the chamber’s two party leaders: such was the case for the passage of July’s Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act. If Pelosi releases her hold, she’ll save the Caesar bill from potential months of procedural red tape, and allow for its passage during a period of intensifying violence in Syria.
Yanklowitz says he’s cognizant of the the political sensitivities underlying the Caesar bill. “I appreciate the difficult strategic balance that the president and the minority speaker have to wrestle with here,” Yanklowitz said. “At the same time I think the images of Syrian refugees, the images of the atrocities have to speak for themselves. And at some point everything cannot merely be a political calculation, but has to be an all-out effort to stop more atrocities even when there’s difficult consequences for that.”
Rabbi Lee Paskind, a consultant for the social justice commission of the Rabbinical Assembly, says he’s also well aware of the letter’s political implications. “Whatever the various political considerations may have been that have moved Congresswoman Pelosi and the administration apparently to want to defer this vote, we agree very strongly with the position in the letter,” said Paskind. “This is a primary humanitarian issue and it needs to be addressed immediately.”
The letter calls to mind the Save Darfur movement of the mid-2000s, when Jewish groups helped turn an obscure civil war in western Sudan into the unlikely focal point of American human rights activism. Syria, unlike the Darfur conflict, is an impossible geo-strategic puzzle-box with profound U.S. national security implications. In Yanklowitz’s view, that complexity shouldn’t stop Jews from getting involved in advocating for an end to the atrocities in the country, even if it means rebuking Nancy Pelosi—and, by implication, Barack Obama as well. “l believe that the the role of Judaism is to soar higher than politics into the prophetic realm of moral calling,” said Yanklowitz.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.