“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” said Rabbi Hillel, one of the most influential sages and scholars in Jewish history.
It is unlikely that Barak Obama had this phrase of the Talmud in mind last week during the Moscow’s G8 summit. However, he seems to have performed a political interpretation of this often quoted Jewish aphorism when he tried to convince his fellow world leaders of the necessity of joint military action against the criminal Assad regime in Syria.
The figures of the Syrian tragedy are well known. 100,000 people killed in two years, two million refugees living in bordering countries, four million displaced within the country and, only a few weeks ago, a lethal chemical weapons attack against the civilian population, in a clear violation of international law. No other government has dared to cross the line of chemical weapons use since the 1980s. The situation has reached a tipping point and it requires a meaningful response by the international community. But what sort of action should be taken?
It seems we are always fighting the previous genocide. Violence unfolding before our eyes usually lacks the unambiguous quality of retrospective moral outrage, naming and condemnation. It is entangled in a complex constellation of forces and unpredictable developments that lead to the fact that the realpolitik, immediate interests and geopolitical concerns are weighted against human rights ideals.
What will be the consequences of military action in Syria? Have all other measures and means of pressure been exhausted? Will the envisioned bombing raids serve to protect civilians?
On September 11 the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Human Rights Program will host a panel discussion in which Syrian community members, experts and scholars will discuss ways to take action without vast and devastating consequences.
Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.