Are We Indifferent to the Suffering in Aleppo?

The images from Aleppo are frightening.

People with only their meager belongings on the march to shelter and safety amidst the rubble of bombed-out buildings and a destroyed city. Mothers with crying children in tow seeking food after perhaps burying other children caught in the crossfire between warring factions. And this, after nearly a half million people were killed or maimed, so many of them children. As harsh as these scenes appear, we are reminded of many of our own grandparents and great-grandparents leaving their homes on the march to what became a “death march” for most. They had left a world behind that was never to return. Unlike the Syrian refugees, our ancestors were forced to march under the watchful eye of heavily armed SS guards who knew no limits to brutality.

How should we react to the tragedy and suffering in Aleppo? We are, after all, rachmanim bnei rachmanim and follow a basic tenet that tzaar, suffering, of any kind for any living species is against the grain of our Torah and tradition. After all, many of the seriously wounded in a civil war that includes the Syrian government, rebels, IS, Russians, and the U.S. and its allies, are secretly, and not so secretly, spirited across the border for treatment in Israeli hospitals. Israeli rescue teams, frequently setting up field hospitals performing life-saving procedures, are among the first to join international efforts at the scene of a disaster such as an earthquake.

Does it matter that this is Syria, where Israeli prisoners of war in 1967 and 1973 received some of the most brutal treatment? Can we forget how Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy, was publicly hanged in Marjeh Square in 1985 in the center of Damascus? Should we forgive the hatred that is no doubt ingrained in most of the Syrian population who would not hesitate a moment if they could harm us?

Yet most of our community is repulsed by what is happening in Aleppo. We may give a big yawn at the news from there but it is more out of frustration at world indifference and a sense of helplessness than it is that we couldn’t care less. We who have suffered so much simply do not have the luxury of leaving the outcry to others. We legitimately feel for human beings who are dying and suffering, even if they are our enemies. We are a people who do not rejoice when our “enemies fall.” (Mishlei 24)

Despite our preoccupation with our own lives and communities, the picture of a child badly injured from one of the many bombings is too much to bear. This is not about liberals vs. conservatives or Jews who are obsessed with “tikun haolam” vs. the “we have our own problem” Jews. We are, as a people, simply not indifferent to human suffering.

Where our blood does perhaps boil is over the dual standard applied to Israel and to everyone else. In the most recent Gaza War, Israel went to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. It practiced a “roof-knocking” policy to warn of pending bombings and even dropped leaflets and made cellphone calls in advance. That did not stop the international community from accusing Israel of “targeting” civilians in hospitals (where Hamas hid weapons and used humans as shields). By contrast, the bombings in Aleppo and elsewhere were simply indiscriminate, without any regard for human lives, without a whimper from the international community.

So is there something we can do for those suffering in Aleppo that goes beyond the krechtz? First, we dare not erase it from our conscience with a simple shrug that “it is not our problem.” Second, we include the suffering of Aleppo in our narrative of world affairs and we make it clear that we are concerned with world indifference to the suffering in Aleppo. Third, we support those who are seeking a solution to end the tragedy and perhaps create safe zones for civilians, allow a massive international humanitarian response, and eventually help in the rebuilding effort so that these refugees do not become charges of the world community, as has been the case until now.

Aleppo is more than a time-sensitive tragedy that will ultimately be resolved, albeit after tens of thousands of people have perished. It is a mindset that Jews have to look over their shoulders at suffering of any kind because we, more than any other nation, have long been singled out for suffering. If we are held to a higher standard about caring for other people, even our enemies, it is for good reason. We are a beacon of light of shunning indifference even if we are not given the benefit of a quid pro quo.