For as long as I can remember, when I was told about the Holocaust they always said that the world was silent. “The Jews were sent to the gas chambers and the world did nothing,” the teacher leading Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies would say, and her voice would crack with tears. So did my grandmother, whose huge ultra-Orthodox family was shot, burned, poisoned and starved in the Nazi killing fields. The few who managed to flee for their lives, shivering refugees, faced a hostile reception in neutral countries like Switzerland. American visas were not even the remotest possibility.
That same grandmother, who was already in this country, went as far as the British high commissioner to beg for an entrance permit for her mother, who remained behind in Poland. In vain. “There’s not even room for a cat in Palestine,” the senior British official told her. Her mother was murdered, and that cruel response burned in her until her dying day.
How could the world have remained silent? Why didn’t they stop the destruction, or at least bomb the death camps, the trains and the tracks? Toward the end of the war, when the military balance in Europe had changed, they could have done this. Some of the Jews of Hungary, for example, could have been saved from Eichmann’s clutches. Hundreds of thousands of people. How did they not open the gates?
How? Look at Aleppo and you’ll see. No comparisons allowed? I’m comparing. To Guernica for example, the symbol of fascist violence in the Spanish Civil War. The mass murderer Bashar Assad, assisted by the brutal Vladimir Putin, dropping barrels of burning oil on residential buildings, carpet-bombing entire neighborhoods, exterminating children, the elderly, farmers and merchants. It’s been going on for five years. Half a million people have been killed. More than four million have fled the country. Double that number have become refugees in their own country. Right now hundreds of thousands of people are under siege in Aleppo, about to be annihilated.
War crimes? Certainly. A crime against humanity? No doubt. And the world is silent. There is an international coalition in Syria, led by the United States. It is even working energetically, and apparently also efficiently, against the Islamic State and the rest of the murder organizations of its ilk. A worthy goal indeed, but ISIS is responsible for only a small part of the massacre, the destruction and the waves of refugees generated by the regime in Damascus and their patrons in Moscow.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, President Barack Obama, did not bring peace. Syria was a major lost opportunity, a stain on his presidency. True, he inherited a terrible legacy from the Republicans: a bleeding swamp in Afghanistan and the fraudulent war in Iraq. The last thing he wanted was another entanglement in the Middle East. It’s hard to blame him, but one should: It was his duty. Had he responded firmly to the horrors perpetrated by Assad and Putin at the outset, perhaps this nightmare of a war would not have reached its current proportions. It would have been possible – and these things were proposed and discussed in real time – to declare a no-fly zone in the regions of the civil war, just as was done in Iraqi Kurdistan against Saddam Hussein. But it wasn’t done, and Putin pulled the rope tighter and tighter until he broke it completely. Millions of people are paying the unimaginable price.
So as not to make life too easy for ourselves, we must add that we, too, are silent. Like all the others, we don’t want to interfere. We are always looking to Washington or Paris, although we are much closer, and have the means. But no one in his right mind wants to dive into that inferno. Would any of us be willing to risk our own lives or those of our families, and the security of our country, in war in a hostile country to save civilians there from a murderous regime? Would we be willing to take in refugees from Syria? The answer is clear.
Nonintervention in Syria, while maintaining coordination with Russia, is considered a prime diplomatic and security interest for Israel. That is the consensus here and it’s understandable. What’s more, Israeli involvement could make things worse. But it must be understood that this is the feeling in other countries as well, and that’s the way they felt then, too. Why risk American or British soldiers, why waste costly armaments, to save riffraff? In 1944 is was not a high priority, and not even a low one. And it isn’t in 2016 either.
And yet, there must be intervention. Certainly after the atrocious infraction of the cease-fire by Assad and his allies. That is not just a prime moral obligation, but also a strategic need. Obama knows full well what Putin’s nature is, and Secretary of State John Kerry knows all the details of the horrors going on in Syria. Now he is threatening and if the massacre in Aleppo continues, the U.S. will “stop the talks” with Russia. How scary. Putin is really quaking in his boots, and the bombings are increasing. At the end of the week Kerry even apologized to the Syrian opposition. Putin is snickering.
Clear boundaries must be placed before Putin, otherwise he will strike other places as well. He has already proven this in Eastern Europe. The military might and economic means of the U.S.-led coalition are much greater than what Putin and his Damascus protégé have. Aerial defense zones must be declared in Syria, and responses – military as well – must be made against anyone who defies them. The destruction of Aleppo can still be halted. There must be a red line against Russia run amok. If there is one thing that Obama, at the end of his term, can do, it is this.