By P.H.I.Berroll

The crisis in Syria has dominated the headlines in recent weeks – and for American Jews, this issue has a particular resonance.

Aside from his use of poison gas, torture and other brutalities against his own people, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad is also a longstanding enemy of Israel. No one in the Jewish community would be sad to see him go; indeed, many Jewish organizational leaders have publicly supported an attack on Syria. But could such an attack be justified, either on moral or political grounds? And would bombing Syria – even the limited campaign originally threatened by President Obama – lead to an anti-Jewish backlash in this country, similar to what occurred after the Iraq invasion of 2003?

The Jewish Link spoke with several Bergen County rabbis for their views on the situation and related political – and theological – questions.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood said that he had been “personally in favor” of an attack after studying briefing information from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “We need to recognize,” he added, “that unless America is willing to back up its words with deeds, we could face potential issues down the road with other countries such as Iran – which could have consequences for Israel, because America is Israel’s most trusted and most powerful ally.”

His sentiments were echoed by Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, who asserted, “When you have such a flagrant violation of human rights, if the world keeps quiet – as we saw, unfortunately, at the time of the Shoah – it only escalates. And therefore, you have a responsibility to take action.”

But Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck expressed a degree of ambivalence. “There needs to be some kind of response,” he said, “but we have to get past this military mentality that it makes us think we can just go in and extricate [Assad] from power – [there should be] a multifaceted approach. I’m not interested in a military strike unless it’s surgical and you’re taking out a major arms depot. But to go in there and fight a prolonged, protracted war, I don’t support that.”

All of the rabbis acknowledged the possibility of a backlash. “I’ve already heard it,” said Rabbi Goldin. “Someone in my own congregation told me that while shopping, he was accosted by someone saying, ‘You Jews are going to get us back into a war.’” But he and his fellow clergymen felt that this could not be the only consideration when weighing the pros and cons of military action.

“There will always be someone making the equation, ‘This is only being done for Israel’s sake,” said Rabbi Zierler. “But once sarin gas was introduced [by the Assad regime], it became more of a global concern. There’s an expression, I believe in Deuteronomy 19:14, that you’re not supposed to move the boundary that was established by earlier generations. With chemical warfare, you’ve moved an international boundary; it’s a violation of international covenants.”

Still, Rabbi Goldin acknowledged, “There’s a certain degree of hubris on our part if we start saying, ‘Go to war, go to war.’ I think it’s very, very important that the Jewish community recognize that other people’s children are standing on the front lines, and we should be grateful to them. For example, it’s a small thing, but we make it a practice [at Ahavath Torah] every week to read the names of American soldiers who were killed in action, because I think it’s important that we understand the cost.”

The rabbis also said that there was no religious incongruity in calling for an attack – that while the Torah contains many references to peace and exhortations to pursue it, it is hardly a call to pacifism in every situation.
“The Torah speaks of peace as an ideal,” said Rabbi Yudin, “but that same Torah teaches that if somebody is coming to attack you, you have to take the initiative and strike first – and it’s not considered a contradiction.”
Rabbis Zierler and Goldin concurred, while emphasizing the Torah’s strict proscriptions on the subject, as exemplified by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“War is a recognized reality in the Torah,” said Rabbi Goldin, “but there are rules in the Torah about how to conduct war. That’s why the IDF, when properly perceived, is really the most moral army in the world.”

“My son is in the IDF,” said Rabbi Zierler. “His unit goes house to house to put down insurrections, even though it puts them at greater risk. But in the Jewish view, you fight very carefully – you do not carpet-bomb, you really try to limit the amount of collateral damage. The IDF operates under this heavy moral burden. Otherwise you become an ach zari, an ugly nation.”

Originally published in Jewish Link newspaper, 2013.