In April 2009, I was standing in Auschwitz Birkenau at the top of the steps which led to the changing room and then to the gas chambers and crematoria. Scholars estimate that several hundred thousand people, mostly Jews, were gassed there. Standing with me at that moment was Rabbi Lazlo (Larry) Berkowitz, himself a survivor of Auschwitz. Rabbi Berkowitz, a graduate of HUC-JIR, is the founding rabbi and rabbi emeritus of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.
While we were standing at these steps, the steps from which people went down to remove their clothes prior to gassing, Larry said the following: “This is the place. This is the place where my mother and my younger brother and sister died. This is the step on which my mother saw her last bit of daylight or her last view of the moon and stars.”
He then chanted the El Male Rachamim memorial prayer for his mother and family. Following this, we all joined him in reciting the Kaddish (memorial prayer). The power of that moment still moves me.
I remembered this story a few days ago when I saw the pictures of rows of dead children in Syria, wrapped up in white sheets with their faces showing, and bereaved parents standing over them. These children and others were the victims of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. These weapons killed or injured over 3,000 Syrians. These deaths are just the latest in a savage war which has taken the lives of over 100,000 Syrians. From this crisis, there are as many as 1,000,000 Syrian refugees, more than half a million have sought refuge in Jordan.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The question now is whether or not the world will react to this serious war crime.
In the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres: “The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “The events in Syria prove that the world’s most dangerous regimes must not be allowed to gain possession of the world’s most dangerous arms.” Ha’aretz veteran analyst Ari Shavit, “If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened. It’s the end of the world that sought to establish a reasonable international order of which the Middle East would be part.”
It could very well be that the “genie is now out of the bottle.” Can it really be that the world is now willing to accept the usage of weapons of mass destruction?
I also realize that there are no easy answers. Intelligence reports indicate that as much as fifty percent of the Syrian resistance is composed of Al Qaeda-leaning Jihadis. There will always be those who will say that the cure might be worse than the disease; but in this case, the disease is horrific and morally repugnant. Can it really be that our concern about the future will cause us to be indifferent to the calamity of the present?
And as far as Israel is concerned, if there were to be no response to this mass murder, could Israel really ever trust President Obama when he says that he will do everything possible to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power? In addition, if there is to be no American response, how will it affect Secretary of State Kerry’s peace efforts? Will Israel be less willing to take the risks for peace, knowing that the American government would in an emergency situation, be incapable or unwilling to respond?
President Obama declared that if Assad used chemical weapons, that this would be crossing a red line. Now that line has been crossed repeatedly. A critical moment in the Obama presidency is at hand. An international response led by the United States to this war crime should not focus on a change of the balance of power in Syria, but on preventing and deterring future usage of chemical weapons.
Our seeming indifference on this as American Jews, seventy years after Jews were gassed in the Shoah, is very sad. Have we not learned anything?
On the fiftieth anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, let us remember as well that Martin Luther King in April of 1963 wrote from Birmingham, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Let us also recall the word of Noble laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel who wrote as a challenge to us: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented … There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Indeed, now is such a time and our words of protest will need to be backed up by concrete action if the lessons of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the struggle endured in America’s Civil Rights Movement are to be heeded.