Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Syria: We have been silent, unprotesting bystanders for too long

Shabbat Ki Tavo – 5773
Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Liberal Jewish Synagogue

In this quiet lull before the storm of the YamimNora’im, the Days of Awe, I wanted to pick up my theme from last Shabbat when I spoke about the law of the kantzippur–  the prohibition against taking a mother bird together with her fledglings or the eggs from the nest, and share with you my experience of visiting LJY-Netzer’s Summer Camp for 8-15 year olds.  I used the law and the story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, who witnessed a young boy carry out the law to its letter, but fall from the ladder as he descended from the tree, as a starting point for a session for the 15 year olds at Kadimah.  The boy dies and Elisha ben Abuyah, understanding the reward of obedience to the law literally – ‘that you may fare well and have a long life’ – renounces his faith and becomes a heretic.

I wanted to run a session with the teenagers about faith and belief in God and to ask them what happens when their childhood and anthropomorphic images of God run out, as it were.  What takes their place?

I had written half my sermon by Wednesday and had thought to show you the materials I had prepared for the teenagers as a stimulus for discussion about their thoughts on faith and God and talk about their interesting responses.  But then, sitting down to watch the news on television on Wednesday night, I found myself appalled and sickened by the scenes of young children and adults convulsed and suffocated by the use of what appears to be chemical nerve agent in Syria.

Those words of our Torah portion – Aramiovedavi – ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’ was no longer a historic reference to Abraham journeying to Canaan, or Jacob fleeing from his brother to Aram (modern day Syria), but a present reality.  Because of this violent and repellent warfare and the events over the past few years,  a vast number of Syrians have been killed, maimed, wounded, displaced and have become refugees desperate to find refuge away from the dangers of their home country.

The numbers of those displaced from their homes defies imagination: these figures come from the website of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (IRCRC): over 4 ¼ million Syrians have been displaced internally; there are 1 ¾ million Syrian refugees who have left the country and the number is rising every day. Of those 1 ¾ million, over 500,000 thousand have gone to Jordan, nearly 600,000 are in Lebanon, 400,000 in Turkey, 160,000 in Iraq, over 88,000 in Egypt and 12,000 in northern Africa.  Another 240,000 are awaiting entry to surrounding countries.  By the end of this year, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent estimates, there may be 3.5 million refugees who have fled from Syria.

A report on the radio on Thursday interviewed a doctor from the IRCRC saying with despair in his voice: ‘We have the ambulances, we have the resources, we just need the green light to be able to go in to help.’  But the situation is so complex and so dangerous, even the most effective agencies are paralysed.

And what about us?  What can we do, other than feel completely helpless?  We have been silent, unprotesting bystanders for too long.  I’m afraid even the condemnation of politicians does not touch the depravity and merciless actions of one of the worst dictators of this century. Such events may seem far away, affecting us only as we watch the scenes of devastation on our television screens.  Although I am reminded that when we were in Israel in May with a group from the LJS, I was awoken on a couple of nights running in our peaceful hotel by the Kinneret by the rattling of the window-frames in my room.  Initially, I couldn’t work out what was causing it – a dustbin cart emptying the rubbish in the middle of the night?  That seemed bizarre.  Eventually, I worked out that the noise in the distance, the thundering that was causing the rattling of the windows, was constant shelling coming from the other side of the Golan Heights, from Syria.  Damascus is less than 70 miles from Tiberias.

One might ask, what is Israel doing about the refugee crisis?  There are 62,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, displaced from Syria and several thousand in the Occupied Territories.  Might Israel take some refugees?  Is it at all conceivable that Israel could set aside the political challenges and take in families for humanitarian reasons?

In the late 1970s, Menachem Begin accepted 300 Vietnamese ‘boat people’, realising that if they didn’t find refuge in Israel, the refugees would be condemned to certain death.  ‘You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’  More recently, Israel has constructed a huge fence on her southern border to keep out Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, repatriating them via Jordan to a third African country or sending them home again to danger and possible death.  We know all too well how Israel has failed to deal with the refugees who have poured into the country.  As for Syrian refugees, Minister of DefenceYa’alon and Prime Minister Netanyahu are reported to have said: “We have no intention of opening refugee camps” (Ya’alon) and “Israel has maintained that it will not allow refugees into the country, but it has treated a small number of wounded Syrian civilians” (Netanyahu).

When struck by tragedy within its own borders, Israel has not been isolated from help from her neighbours in recent years.  One report I read recently referred to the deadly fires that swept through the Carmel forests  in 2010 and how Israel was completely ‘flummoxed’ by the help it received from its Turkey and Palestine.  In the aftermath of the killings by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara, the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, Turkey surprisingly turned up to help extinguish the fires, while Palestinian fire-fighting equipment also brought in to help was said to be of a higher standard than Israeli equipment.

So imagine if Israel reversed its ghetto mentality and took the view that it should offer refuge to some of the many thousands of innocent civilians, the victims of Assad’s slaughter of his people and destruction of his country. This is the suggestion that has been put forward by in a recent article in Israel.

In the cold light of day, the suggestion may seem hugely challenging, but that little statement by Netanyahu, that Israel has treated a small number of Syrians is not necessarily as innocuous as it sounds.  In another report in the New York Times, a rather different picture was portrayed of seriously injured Syrian children and men – usually with neurological or critical internal injuries - spirited across the border and treated in Israeli hospitals in the north of the country.  But, of course, to publicise such acts would be considered a risk and a danger. The aunt of one young girl explained how she had come to care for her niece in a hospital in the Western Galilee and the need to maintain secrecy about where she was being treated.  ‘I won’t say that I was in Israel,’ she told a reporter. ‘It is forbidden to be here, and I am afraid of the reactions.’

In the chaos of Syria and the massive suffering experienced by innocent civilians, the rescue and recovery of a few individuals in Israeli hospitals must seem like a drop in the ocean.  It is quite clear that the West feels inadequate to protest in military terms against what is happening in Syria.  But the humanitarian actions, the ammunition of medicine, surgery, supplies, food, shelter, water, homes, refuge and our profound sense of injustice at what is happening there, our protests against the use of chemical agents, against the displacement and sheer cruelty of Assad’s forces – these must become the armoury of the west’s attack against the war in Syria.  It is no good wringing our hands and saying that we don’t have the military power. We may not.  What we do have and must strengthen is humanitarian aid, born out of conscience, justice, compassion and outrage at what is happening to people in Syria.

At Kadimah on Monday, I was armed with about 10 pictures – all very different – all representing in some way how we might talk about God: the puppet master, the man on a donkey with a carrot and stick, the scales of justice, the Ten Commandments, photographs of nature – a rainbow, a fountain, the deep red and gold of an Autumn leaf, the complex workings of the inside of a watch.  The teenagers grouped themselves around the picture that best represented their thoughts about God.  The largest group – about 10 of the 25 – gravitated towards the blank sheet of paper that was in the collection.  Among the participants there was a mixture of reasons why they had chosen this blank sheet – we don’t know if there is a God; we think God must be everywhere; there is no way of representing God.

I was left holding one sheet which evidently hadn’t appealed to them – the Ten Commandments.  I held the image aloft pretty desperate for someone to highlight the issue of universal morality: do not kill, do not oppress the stranger, give to the stranger, the orphan, the widow – just as it states in our Torah portion for today.

We have a long way to go helping our young people understand that theirs is the voice of the next generation. They are the people who are going to have to confront the terrible consequences of Syria, of Egypt, of Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They, too, will wrestle with their consciences, wondering how moral it can be to remain bystanders and silent in the face of such evil.  To conquer the evil and depravity of man’s inhumanity to man, we must, surely, build on that ammunition of compassion and skill found in those Israeli doctors, tending the Syrian sick.  Then, as the anonymous prophet of the sixth century said in the words of our Haftarah this morning: Lo yishama od chamasb’artzeich, shod v’sheverbig’vulayich – ‘No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders…The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Eternal One will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.’