Does ‘Never Again’ apply only to Jewish loss?

Syria 1

When will babies stop dying in Syria? The war which has raged since 2011 is described as a genocide. As Jews remembered the Holocaust on Sunday, questions were asked about why the Syrian carnage is allowed to continue.

WHEN Holocaust survivor Don Krausz talked movingly on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday to a packed audience at West Park cemetery, Johannesburg, about his experiences as a boy in the Nazi concentration camps, an uneasy question hung in the air about what Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust who was in the Buchenwald camp, said in a recent interview on Israel’s Army Radio – that another “shoah” or holocaust was taking place on Israel’s northern border in the six-year Syrian war.

Lau said what is happening is unequivocally a holocaust. He stepped into contentious territory by using this term, which contemporary dictionaries regard as applying only to the Holocaust in the Second World War in which six million Jews died. He also implied Israel should be doing something to stop the carnage.

For South African Jews, Syria seems a far-away conflict they can do nothing about. And they have huge problems in their own country to deal with. Yet SA Jewry’s strong ties to Israel, which borders on Syria, adds weight to the issue. And the prolific use of the phrase ‘Never Again’ in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day raises a moral imperative.

In the planning of the annual event, it would be appropriate to mention Syria. It would not detract from memorialising Jewish Holocaust victims, but would indicate that the message is taken seriously.

A theme always present in Holocaust Remembrance Day is that the world’s nations did little to prevent European Jews’ mass murder, when they could have saved many. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria today, yet the world powers stand by and let it go on.

Half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed and 11 million displaced, many becoming refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries. Chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin have been used against civilians. In 2013, artillery shells containing sarin killed 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta; earlier this month Syrian air force planes launched it in bombs. Last December, a quarter of a million civilians were besieged in Aleppo by President Bashir al-Assad’s regime, with the slaughter of hundreds every day.

What could little Israel be expected to do, aside from treating wounded Syrian victims in Israeli hospitals, which it is doing? Its army is strong, but it is a tiny country with many enemies in a chaotic region. Yet Rabbi Lau pleaded for action, and former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has said Israel could destroy Syrian aircraft used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians. Others have suggested establishing a humanitarian corridor for civilians, or a no-fly zone alongside Israel’s border, in alliance with America or other countries so it would not be solely an Israeli operation.

Israel would risk being sucked into the conflict, which is extremely complicated as Assad’s forces, the rebels, Al-Qaeda and ISIS battle it out, with major powers like Russia, Iran and the United States supporting or opposing different sides, amidst the Sunni-Shi’ite hatred which dates back to the founding of Islam. Many commentators believe Syria must ultimately be partitioned into a Shi’ite-controlled western area, a Sunni-controlled eastern area, and a Kurdish-controlled northern area.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes Israel getting involved, said in an interview: “…Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

The term ‘Never Again’ was intended to ensure that the world would not again allow people – not only Jews – to be slaughtered by mass murderers. It has failed, as shown by the Rwandan genocide and events in Bosnia and Darfur, among others. Now Syria. Former US President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 after Ghouta. Donald Trump will likely follow suit.

Lau has been criticized for his statements. But Holocaust centres worldwide attempt to make the Jewish experience a universal lesson. Johannesburg’s new Holocaust and Genocide Centre, pioneered by Tali Nates – whose father and uncle were on the famous ‘Schindler’s list’ and were thereby saved from the Nazis – stresses the importance of recognising and preventing genocide anywhere. Avner Shalev, the chairman of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – said the international community must “end the human suffering [in Syria] and provide humanitarian aid to the victims.”

There is no easy answer to Israel’s and the Jews’ role in a world which is again allowing genocide. But the phrase ‘Never Again’ would sound more authentic if it was applied to Syria.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )