WASHINGTON – At the start of the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, which began Sunday night, congregants pray to God to bring peace, spiritual and temporal, to all mankind.
The High Holy Days' “Days of Awe” are an appropriate time to consider the fate of a people who now are particularly in need of that peace – Syrians.
In this season of reflection, repentance and renewal, it is also appropriate to consider the moral and political obligations of Germany, Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world to bring about that peace.
In sum: Germany is trying to lead, Europe is going slow, the U.S. is playing for time, and wealthy Arab states are doing nothing. In Israel there is talk of helping – the opposition leader suggested accepting some refugees – but it’s just talk. As for Iran and Russia, they have long backed the man who created the Syria chaos in the first place, Bashar Assad.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the European effort to welcome Syrian refugees, though last week she had to scale back her own adherence to the European Union’s liberal rules for admitting them. A steady stream had become a flood. Still, Germany probably will take in more refugees than the rest of the 28-member EU combined.
It is usually wrong, and always risky, to compare events of our time to those of Nazi years. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was singularly demonic: a brutal genocidal machine without parallel. And yet, in the beseeching voices of refugees fleeing the killing fields of Syria, an echo of those earlier dark and blood-soaked times is impossible to ignore.
Stern but caring, Merkel is all too aware of the history: In the 1930s and 1940s, German trains were packed with Jews on their way to death in concentration camps. Now they are packed with Syrians desperate to escape the Islamic State and Assad and to live in peace and prosperity in her country.
She is trying to offer her prosperous country as a model of humanitarian decency. Merkel is no prophet. No politician is. But if prayer is in the air, it might be worth saying one for her.
The rest of Europe, especially the east, is balking at the Merkel project and even reacting with concertina wire and hate speech, especially in Hungary.
In the U.S., the Obama administration issued a carefully worked statement suggesting that it would “prepare” to take in to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year. This year that number is about 1,500.
Millions of Syrians are in exile, at least temporarily, in Jordan and Lebanon, two neighboring countries that are among the poorest and most enfeebled in the entire Arab world. Meanwhile, the Gulf Arab states, which have all the cash in the world and plenty of room, haven’t offered to take a single refugee.
In Israel, opposition leader Isaac Herzog has suggested that the Jewish state, reborn from the ashes of suffering, should extend a hand to at least some Syrian refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the plight of the Syrians, but rejected the idea on logistical grounds. And in a new poll, only one in 10 Israelis said that they would support allowing any Syrian refugees to settle in the country.
Wariness is understandable. The two countries technically remain in a state of war, and there is no faction fighting in Syria that would not wish to destroy Israel if it wasn’t too busy trying to destroy its sectarian enemies within.
As Syria fails, Syrians suffer.
So in this solemn but hopeful season, prayer may be the only answer – and knowing that “mankind” means the child staring with imploring eyes through the window of a train.