As two rabbis involved in interfaith activity, we have had the opportunity to both reflect on the unique contributions of other faith communities, as well as on the responsibility to respectfully speak out when we see historic mistakes being repeated. This is especially true during our High Holy Days, a time of personal reflection and communal judgment for all of G-d's children.
We have expressed our deep concern over the silence of so many of our Christian friends in the wake of the targeting of millions of Christians in Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan and beyond. And now we are haunted by the muted reaction of the world community to the gassing of Syrian children by the Assad regime. Not all evil is created equal. When we encounter such escalations, our first reaction ought to be outraged calls for action.
We toil under the banner of the late Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, who worked with Holocaust survivors on a daily basis to give meaning to the battle cry of "Never again." But today, the facts on the ground scream out, "Ever again!"
And now, with the US Secretary of State providing grisly details of the poison gas attacks and with new evidence of the targeting of high school students with napalm-style chemicals, we finally do hear a chorus of protests building-but tragically it is one of appeasing evil, not confronting it. Calls to stand down against Assad's crimes against humanity were led by the Quakers, a group that has maintained since its inception an unbending opposition to the use of lethal force.
To be sure, the world is a better place because of the way Quakers remind us of how distasteful it should be to contemplate taking even a single human life. Yet, Jews (and we know that many, if not most, Christian are with us on this, on both practical and theological grounds) believe that the same way we are commanded by G-d to assiduously pursue good, we are also commanded to understand the full power of evil in an unredeemed world, and not to turn a blind eye to its potency.
We revere the acts of some courageous Quakers who sought to protect Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. But we all should also remember that, had the world embraced the insistence on pacifism by Quakers under all circumstances, Hitler would have succeeded in murdering all Jews and enslaving the world.
The "red line" that the Syrians again crossed last week was first breached decades ago when Saddam Hussein gassed his fellow (Kurdish) Iraqi citizens. The world found excuses then not to act, and the world has paid a bitter price for that inaction ever since. Back in 1988, Simon Wiesenthal was one of the few who raised his voice, warning that tyrants would be emboldened to do worse by the indifference of global powers. His prophetic words were drowned out by the roaring silence of apathy. Now some religious voices would have the world enshrine such inaction as a moral, godly choice.
In a world where the divide between Man and G-d has not yet been perfectly bridged, we can predict what will happen if gassing civilians becomes the new normal.
Reasonable people are debating what the proper military response should be. Our President himself has opted to delay ordering a military strike until securing the consent of Congress.
The most extreme reaction, however, came from the Quakers, who mobilized to oppose any military response – on ideological grounds, not practical ones. We believe that they are speaking a language that is intelligible only to a civilization living much closer to the borders of the gates of heaven than the world we live in. Listening to their message, however beautiful, relegates religion to the realm of the theoretical. Most people will sense this as the failure of the Living G-d to address our lives in the here and now.
We believe otherwise. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has urged the US to thwart more horrific crimes against humanity by Assad by destroying Syria's capability to deploy its massive stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. We do so this Rosh Hashanah as synagogues in the US upgrade security against possible terrorist acts and as many of our relatives don gas masks in Israel, waiting for "retaliation" for a war they are not involved in-threatened by a rain of missiles from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
We share with our Quaker friends the dream of a redeemed world, and will fervently pray that it should soon become a reality for all of mankind. But until it does, inspired by G-d's admonition to be our brother's keeper and together with all people of good faith, we will pursue an activist path through the minefield of an unredeemed world that starts with tackling real-time evil with real-time action.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director for Interfaith Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.