Jews and others who lament that there were not more effective efforts to combat the Holocaust may learn something from the limited concern thus far shown by western governments for the carnage in Syria.
It qualifies for the label of a mini-Holocaust, with what may be half a million killed and more than 10 million having left their homes, defined as internally displaced or international refugees.
There are substantial differences between what the Germans and their underlings did in the 1940s and what has been happening in Syria. The Nazis killed Jews and other civilians in organized,industrial fashion, during a major war when other powers were more concerned with military campaigns, and arguably could not afford to focus on the victims. Yet there were also denials of visas that at certain stages would have provided more opportunities to save those fleeing persecution.
Between World War II and Syria have been major brutalities out with western indifference in Cambodia and Africa, along with considerable carnage in the former Yugoslavia prior to a limited western intervention. Cynics may say that European blood is worth more than what flows in other regions.
If western worthies may claim credit for removing from power Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, they also have to accept responsibility for the killings and displacements that continue to occur in ongoing chaos. Afghanistan is not any more of a bright spot. It remains the ungoverned place that foiled efforts of Britain in the 19th century, Russia and then America from the 1980s to the present.
My own insight into the nature of Afghanistan came from a villager who asked me how long it took to travel by bus from there to America. The young man, employed to keep putting wood into the stove all night that heated my room, knew more than a bit of English, but he did not know about the oceans. When I tried to explain, he countered with the case of the nearby river, where they put the bus on a raft and pole it across.
Statistics for dead and displaced in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan as a result of US and allied actions--and since they acted--are nothing more than crude estimates. They range from hundreds of thousands to millions killed and many more displaced, with different estimates offered by those wanting to minimize and maximize the catastrophes.
Syria is currently in the headlines, serving as the model of Arab Winter which came after the brief optimism that Barack Obama, Thomas Friedman, and their chorus called Arab Spring. Also in the winter are Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, the Sinai, and various places in West Africa down to Nigeria. It's more accurate to describe the whole as Muslim Winter rather than Arab Winter, but that's a small matter that may not interest the White House.
The same old stuff, what happened from the human rights catastrophes from the 1940s onward, is the question asked then and now by Americans and others, "How many of our people do we want to sacrifice for the sake of them?"
Franklin Roosevelt had to combat American isolationism and anti-Semitism as well as the Nazis and Japanese. He couldn't make his war something for the sake of Jews. Now Barack Obama and his European colleagues are not inclined to endanger their own troops for the sake of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans or other Africans. Something akin to renewed American isolationism reflects losses and frustrations from Vietnam, onward.
John Kerry and his underlings are traveling and claimed success in arranging one cease fire after another in Syria for the sake of humanitarian relief, and the prospect of meetings between representatives of the Syria government and various opponents. However, the chief foreign power that is involved, i.e., the Russians, say that they will continue fighting "terrorists." Insofar as their allies in the Assad regime define all opponents as "terrorists," that pretty much limits what Kerry et al are able to do. Israeli headlines are ridiculing a cease fire that holds only between bombings.
The dispute and anguish at the peak of the German government, with lesser anguish apparent among other Europeans. concerned with the flow of refugees had its parallels in the various decisions about Jewish refugees taken by officials in the US and other western governments in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Now the refugees come with the likelihood of violent Muslims to communities that are already restive. The issues are not only humanitarian but involve assessments about security, as well as tensions between Muslim newcomers and non-Muslim populations.
Israeli opinions are all over the map about the conflict right over the border. There is support for treating wounded of all factions who make it to the aid stations in the Golan. There is also a feeling that the chaos is someone else's problem, insofar as it occurs in a population that has been hostile not only to Israel, but to Jewish communities that had been Syrian for more than two thousand years. The Assads had not overtly provoked Israel since the 1970s, and there is considerable distrust for the variety of militias aspiring to take control over parts or the whole of what may have been an unhappy but stable place. There is understanding, if not enthusiasm for the activism of Russia, as compared to the dithering from the White House and State Department. There is concern that potential conflict between Turkey and Russia not spin out of control. Israelis recognize the problems of Turkey, being on the border and between Syrian refugees and their aspirations to reach Europe. There isn't a great deal of support for the current Turkish government, its support of Hamas, and its continued row with various kinds of Kurds. Overall, there seems considerable support for the IDF staying out of things, along with occasional interventions in response to firing into the Golan, and to keep serious weapons away from Lebanon and Hezbollah.
There is nothing neat about this. It's far from ideal. Officials are balancing contacts and seeking accommodations with Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and others for the purpose of keeping Israel's options open, and keeping animosities among them from spilling over onto us.
While some Israelis see this as yet another reason to make peace with the Palestinians, the greater sentiment is some mix of ridicule, revulsion, and pity for those westerners who continue to emphasize the suffering of Palestinians, and see Israel as responsible.
For the latest example of what looks like an anti-Israeli tilt coming from the most Jewish of the world's major newspapers (in terms of ownership, staff, and readership), click on this.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem