History is a dangerous but inevitable guide through the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar.
Each Passover, we examine the state of Israeli-Egyptian relations, worry about the latest exodus of refugees from war-torn regions and wonder about our contemporaries who are enslaved.
At Purim, we fret about the modern incarnation of the Persian Empire, Iran, and its ambitions.
Each summer in the run-up to Tisha B’Av, we ask ourselves whether our Jewish disunity is again leading to our doom.
So it’s the Chanukah season, and as we recall a brutal Hellenistic Syrian dictator, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and the brave few who rose to gain their freedom, we can’t help but turn to the brutal Syrian dictator of today, Bashar al-Assad, whose response to rebels seeking freedom is so much more devastating than Antiochus could have imagined.
After more than five years of war, at least half a million Syrians are dead. Millions of others have been wounded or displaced or both.
We can wish that a Syrian version of Judah Maccabee would arise and defeat Assad, but, unlike Antiochus, Assad has the limitless support of a Russian military that seems determined to re-establish its position as the most feared force in the world and to have forgotten its own lessons from Afghanistan. We also can’t forget that the cost of the Maccabees’ battlefield success was the unleashing of an era of Jewish intolerance and religious oppression — an outcome that could be repeated with any anti-Assad leader who might emerge to establish the next Islamic State-type regime.
That terrorist possibility has driven President Barack Obama’s Syria policy; as a result, he has led this nation and the Western world into one of history’s most dangerous traps.
If it’s true that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it — a theory Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems determined to test — it’s also true that those too wary of repeating history are bound to be trapped by their own fears into the doom of inaction.
Obama was right to be wary of committing war-weary Americans to further fighting in the Middle East. Perhaps, as he asserted in his valedictory press conference Friday, Dec. 16, the long-term national security position for the United States will be stronger because he resisted the appeal of a humanitarian mission, regardless of what emerges in Syria (from Russian or Iranian puppet regime to Cambodian-style killing fields to terrorist superstate).
But our inaction stains us. Obama’s error in bluffing over a meaningless red line — chemical weapons are horrible, but 500,000 people can be slaughtered by conventional bullets and bombs — emboldened Russia and Iran and empowered Assad. We as a nation have compounded that error by operating as if we have only two options: pointless diplomacy or hopeless war.
We as Americans are not the world’s police, but we once carried a moral authority that justified our superpower status. George W. Bush undermined that position with too much aggression; Obama perhaps has destroyed what was left through too much caution.
Regardless, as Jews and Americans, we now carry the shame of declaring “never again,” then standing aside and shrugging while the slaughter of innocents did happen again.