Like the rest of the country, the Jewish community is deeply conflicted about the president’s call for congressional approval in using force in Syria. Some of the largest and most influential Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are urging lawmakers to grant the president the authority he seeks in responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. These Jewish groups invoke the historical memory of Nazi barbarism, as well as the need to send a message to Iran that America respects its own red lines.
Many other Jews join what is perhaps a majority of voters in worrying that a military engagement in Syria, no matter how limited, threatens to embroil the United States in yet another Middle Eastern war, cost American lives, and further deplete our treasury. They wonder about the impact of America going it alone when Syria should be an international responsibility.
But no matter where they stand on use of force, Jews shouldn’t be lulled into the lazy argument that chemical weapons — strongly linked to the deaths of 1,400 Syrian civilians — are no different than the conventional weapons that have killed over 100,000. In a valuable article in The Boston Globe, Richard Price explains why chemical warfare became a global taboo and must remain so. The particularly horrible and indiscriminate impact of gas attacks — nearly impossible to target effectively, disproportionately dangerous to noncombatants — is enough to place them in a special category. But the global taboo on their use has created something else: a culture of restraint among nations. That may be hard to believe given the death tolls of repeated conflict. Nevertheless, by establishing and maintaining the taboo, nations of the world have established a precedent that has been extended to other weapons. For example, “[w]ithout the chemical weapons precedent, the diplomats pressing the anti-land-mine cause would have had a much, much tougher path,” writes Price.
Whether military action or diplomacy is the right course in Syria, we shouldn’t lose sight of the particular horror of chemical warfare. As AIPAC stated, “Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass.”