‘Seinfeld” aficionados will remember how the series ended, with the four main characters being convicted under a highly unusual statute for not intervening to prevent a carjacking. Normally, in U.S. law, there is no affirmative requirement to help anyone in distress. Good Samaritan laws were passed to shield those who take action voluntarily from potential liability claims based on those actions.
Jewish law, on the other hand, is fundamentally different. Al ta’amod al dam re’echa… Do not stand idly by when the blood of your neighbor is being shed. As Jews, we are commanded to protect other human beings from harm when we have the means to do so at our disposal. In fact, pikuach nefesh, preservation of human life, is the highest value.
Yet again, despite “Never Again,” we are watching a brutal dictator in Damascus massacre tens of thousands of his own people in cold blood, more recently with the use of chemical weapons. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and other Jewish organizations have expressed support for President Obama’s plan to strike Syrian President Assad’s regime with missiles as a way of conveying to him and to others, especially Iran and North Korea, that the use of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) will not be tolerated.
The use of WMD, no doubt, represents the crossing of a significant line, one that is drawn by numerous international norms designed to protect innocent civilians and combatants alike. But for the over 100,000 Syrians who have been killed by conventional means, or the almost one million Rwandans, many of whom were hacked to death by machetes, or the millions of Cambodians slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, this distinction in the modality of carnage makes little difference.
A mass atrocity is a mass atrocity, and the targeting of innocents, regardless of the weapons used, also is clearly outlawed under public international law.
Drawing upon Jewish values, the JCPA in 2011 adopted a policy resolution that called upon the United States “to view as a fundamental national and global interest the development of policies and global partnerships geared toward the prevention and ending of mass atrocities and, more particularly, prevention and punishment of genocide. The policy expressed support for the use of diplomatic, legal, political, and economic measures … and, where other options are unavailable or ineffective, consideration of military operations in the pursuit of this objective.”
Sadly, with Russia and China blocking action in the United Nations’ Security Council, the world body, once again, has shown that it is not an effective instrument when dealing with genocides and mass atrocities. The Transatlantic Alliance, acting through NATO, proved to be a useful vehicle in stopping the slaughter in Kosovo. But the recent vote of the British Parliament against the use of military force — and Turkey’s anti-intervention stance, despite the influx of Syrian refugees to that country — rules out NATO.
President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike against the Assad regime in response to the chemical weapons attack is producing a vigorous public debate with arguments being made on both sides of this issue. We already hear from administration spokespeople that it is important to strike Assad in order to send a clear message to the mullahs in Tehran that continuation of their nuclear arms program will not be tolerated. True enough. But even if there were no centrifuges spinning in Iran, would the need to stop the massacre of men women and children in Syria be any less compelling?
Americans are right to be frustrated that the job of bringing sanity into this world always seems to fall primarily or even exclusively on our shoulders. Yes, we are the only global superpower, and that brings special responsibility. But somehow we have to find a way around the feckless United Nations and establish a more independent multilateral mechanism with international legitimacy to deal with genocides and mass atrocities.
In 2012, encouraged by Samantha Power, a leading scholar on genocide and now America’s ambassador to the UN, the president created the Atrocities Prevention Board, a new interagency body tasked with developing a comprehensive whole-of-government approach to identify and address atrocity threats and to oversee institutional changes ensure that genocide and mass atrocity prevention are a priority at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Establishment of a reliable international mechanism outside the UN to deal with this scourge should be pursued with vigor.
While I, like many others, fell in love with Seinfeld and his three cohorts over the years, at the end of the day, they got what they deserved. Inaction in the face of evil is wrong.
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.