I have no doubt that President Barack Obama was well-intentioned when, rather than enforcing his “red line” in August of 2013 after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gassed to death more than 1000 innocent Arabs, he chose not to attack Assad but to forge an ultimately fraudulent deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.
But intentions don’t count when it comes to mass murder. You either take action or you don’t. And President Obama chose not to. Obama’s inaction will forever stain his legacy.
I have noted elsewhere that April 7, the day in Syria when Trump launched his retaliatory attack, was the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. More than 800,000 people were hacked to death in three months in 1994. The world watched in silence as the Tutsis were dismembered.
President Bill Clinton did not lift a finger to help them, and in 1998 he traveled to Rwanda to apologize. His words, as usual, were eloquent. But surely the people of Rwanda would have preferred mistaken comments by Clinton’s press secretary matched by action to stop the slaughter, rather than an eloquent apology that was too little, too late.
Trump and his people may not have found all the right words in defending their attack on Assad. Press Secretary Sean Spicer certainly did not. But when it comes to combatting genocide, words are trivial and action is everything. I am grateful to Sean Spicer and the members of the Trump team for taking action to give value to innocent Arab life.
For the past two days, I was in a news blackout due to the Passover holiday. The festival ended, and I saw that my inbox was filled with media asking me to comment on Spicer’s remarks about Hitler, poison gas, and the Holocaust. As a rabbi, I cannot broadcast on any Jewish holy day. But I felt Spicer deserved defending after his apology, so here goes.
Hitler was the most evil man that ever lived. He gassed, shot, and burned six million Jews and started wars that led so the deaths of approximately 100 million people. He was a monster the likes of which the world has never seen. No one should be compared to Hitler.
But it is also true that Hitler is the godfather of all modern genocide, and all those who attempt the extermination of an ethnic group are Hitler’s ideological stepchildren. True, genocide did not start with Hitler, but with the Ottoman Turks and their mass murder of the Armenians during World War I — a genocide that the amoral world still barely recognizes. But Hitler has become mass murder’s symbol, and was responsible for the most far-reaching and all-encompassing genocide of all time.
Spicer is right to point out Assad’s relationship with Hitler, since the Syrian butcher is attempting a genocide of Sunni Muslims in Syria carried out by Alawite militias, Shia Iran, and Hezbollah (which is also Shia). All of that has been aided and abetted by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Spicer is also correct to point out that the use of nerve agents against one’s own people is a unique form of evil from which Assad can now never escape.
Assad should be removed because no man who gasses his people must ever be allowed to stay in power.
Where Spicer was absolutely wrong was when he said that Hitler had not used chemical gas against his own people, given that Hitler murdered something in the region of 200,000 German Jews during the Holocaust — not to mention the millions of others who were gassed at Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and so many other camps.
I understand what Spicer was trying to say — namely, that there were areas where Assad was even worse than Hitler, insofar as the Damascus butcher used chemical gas on the battlefield, something, interestingly, which Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany used in World War I but the Wehrmacht seemed not to have used in battlefield conditions in the Second World War.
Yet Spicer was wrong because all of Europe was a battlefield during that war, and the gas chambers where 1.5 million Jewish children met their end was history’s most horrible use ever of chemical agents in war.
But Spicer apologized — and, it seems, he did so sincerely, much regretting his mistake. He deserves to be forgiven and we should move on.
Those who wrote blogs calling Spicer an antisemite are guilty of character assassination and debasing the term. The Jews have real enemies in the world. Sean Spicer has used his pulpit at the White House repeatedly to defend the Jewish State and condemn genocidal Iran. He should be considered a friend of the Jewish people.
What is far more important to me, as a member of a people who experienced genocide, is that the Trump administration decided to reverse course from previous American inaction at the gassing of Syrian children, and strike hard at the Assad regime, showing them that Never Again must mean just that, Never Again.
For nearly four years we watched as America became a toothless tiger in relation to Syria, forever huffing and puffing but never striking at Assad for the use of nerve agents against kids. Surely even the biggest Trump haters must applaud the president for his honorable action at striking back at the beast.
The crime of the Holocaust is unique in world history. It brooks no comparisons. But genocides of any stripe are humanity’s highest abomination, and poison gas is poison gas. America had a moral responsibility to hit the Assad regime for dropping sarin gas on children. And nothing that can be said about that action will ever be as important as the action itself. To see Syrian jets smoldering in ruins at the hands of the American military is to take just pride in being citizens of the most righteous nation on earth.
Many of the memoirs of Auschwitz survivors relate how the prisoners prayed daily that they might see American bombers punishing the SS for operating the gas chambers at Birkenau. They prayed even though they knew that such bombing runs would cost them their own lives. But the bombers never came, thereby forever staining the legacies of even truly great men like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who ultimately defeated Hitler.
It’s time to applaud and thank President Trump and his administration, Spicer included, for taking decisive action in Syria to save Arab life. Because only action, and not words, are that which will ensure that Never Again means Never Again.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.