Thinking Outside the Box About Syria


“One Strike” was a fantasy. People killed by a chemical attack in Ghouta, last month.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Amir Shoam’s attack on my Drop Gas Masks, Not Bombs article, about U.S. policy toward Syria, ignores my saying that that phrase was a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? For breaking out of the official “box,” in which some officials of the U.S. government, some of the Israeli government, and some “official” institutions of American Jewish life, tried to assert there were only three choices about Syria: “Do nothing, one strike, or all-out war to topple the regime.” That metaphor and the article were a way to awaken deeper thought among American Jews. We pointed out that “One Strike” was a fantasy, ignoring the fog of war, the swamp of war, the possibility of unpredictable retaliation and re-retaliation.

More after the jump.
We also pointed out the despair that is seeping into American life, because we are wasting on self-destructive wars not only the lives, limbs, minds, and souls of our soldiers, but also the schools, renewable-energy sources, and new jobs we desperately need.

That awakening of deeper Jewish thought did happen. As a result, a much more nuanced statement was initiated by The Shalom Center, written and signed by rabbis and cantors — as of the afternoon before Yom Kippur, 64, of every stream, gender, and age.

In that Statement, the 64 rabbis and cantors proposed a serious approach to the Syrian regime’s allies — Russia and Iran — to get them to insist on its never using chem-war. When we wrote and first circulated the statement, some called that line “unrealistic.” But two days later, it became utterly “realistic” for the U.S., Russia, and the Syrian regime to be negotiating on it.

Never write off good sense; even self-absorbed and domineering leaders may decide good sense is realistic.

About Mr. Shoam’s other criticism of the original article: The real nub of them, as he said, is Iran. There I have a view very different from the Netanyahu/AIPAC view of how to deal with Iran, now that a new president has been elected. President Rouhani has put forth cautious, but important negotiating feelers. Indeed, the leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel, reports that Iran has offered to dismantle the Fordo nuclear facility — in exchange for ending the sanctions against Iran. Moreover, Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust-denial assertions have been publicly rejected. As a high official of the new government said, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.”

The U.S. should be pursuing with great vigor the possibility of, by stages, making a profound change in our relationship with Iran. That does not mean encouraging an Iranian nuclear weapon, as Mr. Shoam twists my suggestion of negotiating with Iran to mean. It does mean working to bring Iran into a legitimate framework of peace with the U.S. and the world.

That will require addressing some deep wounds the U.S. has inflicted on Iran over the last 50 years:

  • By CIA intervention, overthrowing a democratically elected, New Dealish government in 1953;
  • By then, restoring the Shah, and for 26 years supporting his using of torture and murder on dissidents;
  • By protecting the Shah in 1979, when the Iranian people drove him from office and wanted to try him for his crimes; and
  • By supporting Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical war to kill 100,000 Iranians, during Iraq’s 1980-1988 wars against Iran.

Finally, Mr. Shoam assets that the present diplomatic possibility of eliminating Syrian chemical weapons rests on a military threat. That is probably partly true. But it also rests on the fact that the “No” from the UK Parliament, and the chorus of “No” from the American public, first forced the President to ask permission from Congress to go to war, and then to pursue diplomacy, when it became clear Congress was also poised to say “No.”

I am proud that The Shalom Center and the 64 rabbis we inspired, and millions of grass-roots American Jews, joined in that “No,” and helped us all move away from a disastrous war. I wish the official “leadership” of American Jewry, now totally out of touch with the real flesh-and-blood community, would learn the lesson.

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