It’s been a month since the brutal reality of Syria’s civil war was driven home to the world by a photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the Mediterranean Sea’s shoreline. That image crystallized a massive, if belated, outpouring of concern for the fate of millions of Syrians fleeing the barrel bombs of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Russian airstrikes now backing him, along with the onslaught of Islamic State and other Islamist terrorist groups.
That concern has been particularly pronounced among American Jews. “Until recently, not enough has been done by the Jewish community,” Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a coalition that includes many Jewish organizations, told The Forward in an interview. “But I believe now we will see a much greater response, because that photograph really galvanized the world.”
Speaking to The Tower in January this year, Bennett described what had so far been an uphill struggle to raise awareness of, and funds for, Syrian refugees. “We’ve seen so much brutality from the regime, as well as from the extremists in the opposition, that potential donors to Syria can’t tell who the good guys are, who it is that we need to help,” Bennett said at the time.
Bennett’s view that circumstances are finally changing for the better is borne out by the comments of Jewish communal figures in The Forward‘s report.
“A group of Reform rabbis started to ask questions about this on Facebook,” Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Community Synagogue of Rye told the paper. They eventually decided to use the image of the shofar, replacing it with a cell phone to advocate on behalf of the refugees. At Gropper’s synagogue, congregants were asked to go online and sign a petition asking President Barack Obama to increase refugee resettlement quotas.
Simultaneously, some leading Jewish advocacy groups are urging a greater effort by the Obama Administration to prioritize the Syrian crisis. “We believe the United States can play an important role in trying to end the civil war,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director at the Jewish Policy Center, told The Forward that while everyone should try and help the Syrian refugees, it is other countries, namely Russia and Iran, that bear responsibility for creating the problem.
“It’s neither our fault nor our responsibility,” she said. “This doesn’t mean the United States should close its eyes in the face of this humanitarian crisis, but it’s ridiculous to say we have a moral responsibility when we’re not involved in the war.”
Even before the death of Aylan Kurdi, Jewish aid groups had been diligently working on the ground to assist the refugees. For the last two years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has been coordinating a coalition of relief groups in Jordan, where over 600,000 Syrians have fled. The JDC is now expanding its work into other territories, including Europe, where the organization has a long record of helping Jews in plight.
Bennett highlighted that one positive aspect of the relief effort has been the close cooperation of Syrian and Israeli aid workers. This, she observed, creates “a kind of political progress looking at the day after. This is game-changing stuff that’s going on.”