Israelis Show Solidarity with the People of Syria

Reporting from Israel: Yovav Kalifon

A friend asked me to join a small team of organizers planning to help the situation in Syria somehow

Quick background
The Arab Spring, as they call it, took an ugly turn in Syria, and today the military and various rebel groups are fighting hard. Iran and Lebanon also seem to be involved, fighting on the side of the Syrian regime, while military personnel who defected from the army fight on the side of civilian rebels against the regime. In over one year of fierce fighting, about 10,000 civilians were reported dead, or about 100 dead per month.

Online revolution
Being the 21st century, the face of the revolution is mainly seen on youtube, twitter, and other such channels of communication. Foreign media has a hard time reaching the important areas, and Syrian controlled media is giving only one version of the events. Thus, civilians under fire take it upon themselves to film the events and upload information to the web. In doing so, they are taking big risks, not only in putting themselves in the line of fire, but also by exposing themselves to arrest and interrogation by the Syrian authorities.

What do we see in Syria?
If you have the stomach for it, I recommend going on youtube and punching in a few relevant search words regarding Syria. It doesn’t take a big Middle-Eastern expert to interpret the images and sound. You will see civilians under military fire, you will notice snipers taking down protesters just like that, you will find scenes of execution, people slaughtered with their hands tied behind their backs. There are videos of torture and abusive beating by people in uniform, or against people in uniform. You can find survivors testifying on their experiences, showing bullet holes in their feet or whatnot. There are many claims of mass rape, and basically the worst situation you can imagine.

Looking at the images, I can’t imagine how anyone could support president Assad or his regime. The homicidal brutality is simply out of control in Syria, and that much is obvious. No commentary is necessary. On the other hand, what might have begun as a civil movement or a peaceful protest has evolved into an armed rebellion. They want Assad down, and he is fighting to stay in power. Whether the public demands are right or wrong, Assad has nothing left to lose. He has to suppress the movement or lose it all.

And when we look at the rebel groups, what do we find? It’s hard to convincingly argue they are aspiring for freedom or democracy, universal rights or liberties, humanistic values or the likes. Many of them probably do, but on the whole, it now looks as if Sunna and Shia Islam have a new battle ground, with Iran supporting the Alawi regime against the Sunni public, with other Alawis in the country fortifying themselves in, as do the Druze and other minority groups, each community defending itself in its respective region, probably expecting the worst as each other minority group picks up smuggled arms and fights whomever…

I don’t know if I support any of them, or why I should assume any group will be better for Syria than Assad is, or was.

Here, for example, is a Syrian opposition official which I don’t find particularly pleasing to hear. Not only does he spit out Nazi propaganda, he also blames Israel for the continued bloodshed in Syria:

What I fear the most is that in a society like Syria, which seems to be tearing itself apart, the group that will eventually come on top might be the most brutal and oppressive one. That would be bad for Israel, and worse for the Syrians.

The best case scenario, I feel, for Israelis and Syrians alike, would be to have a group clearly stand out from among the rebel groups, and promote pluralistic ideals, something resembling a democracy, or at least equality and basic rights for all Syrians. So far, the speakers that reach my attention all speak on behalf of their own group, and promise to punish others – the criminals. But who are the people who are to be punished, I am afraid to ask. Are they individuals, or their entire families and supporters wherever they may be? Is this justice or cleansing we are talking about, and how does it differ from the cleansing performed by the current leadership in Syria?

What can we do
As Israelis, we know we are not generally liked in Syria. The Syrian regime, and the opposition, and much of the public, don’t like Israel, in general. In their protests, you can hear Syrians chanting: “Assad, you coward, don’t aim your tanks at us, aim at Israel”. Critics of the regime argue that “Assad is worse than the Zionists”. Of course, Assad goes on television saying that there is no popular uprising, but rather it is a Western plot by Israel, the Mossad, and the USA, using criminal gangs to ignite civil unrest in Syria.

I recently received a visitor from Syria, right here in Jerusalem. He was a young American traveler. He told me there was a street in Damascus where the flag of Israel was painted on the sidewalk, so that passersby could walk all over it. He always felt he had to go around it, not to step on the Magen-David, until someone told him it made him look suspicious, and that he should beware the secret police. He also mentioned to me most Syrians were afraid to discuss politics with him, or among themselves, and often resorted to using code-words when referring to Israel or such, so not to draw the attention of the authorities.

Therefore, if Israel would show too much support for the rebels, the regime would use that against the rebels, showing that they serve some Israeli interest, or that they cooperate with Israeli Mossad agents. Israel won’t risk assisting rebel groups militarily, since that might start a real war between our armies. There was another public protest in Israel, in-front of the Russian embassy in Tel-Aviv, soon after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to back-up an Arab plan to force Assad to step down. As a part of that protest the Israeli organizers also arranged for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Jordan, where Syrian refugees are now gathering.

In this climate, a small private initiative was born, to make a public show of solidarity with the Syrian people.

How it began
A young mother in Tel-Aviv named Shira Ingber-Cohen, aged 29 and trained as a clinical-psychologist, watched a documentary news report by Itai Anghel on Channel 2 in Israel, and was shaken to her core. The report, which also made use of those videos uploaded by Syrians to the Web, tells about the abuse, the torture, the rape, the slaughter. It is a difficult report to watch, and it’s difficult not to do anything about it, so Shira decided to write something from the heart, to express her pain, and to ask volunteers to help her organize a public show of solidarity.

Shira’s letter
The letter, which Shira placed at the heart of the event, was spontaneous. It does not make any political analysis of the events in Syria. It does not involve calculations of national interest. It simply and honestly expresses pain, genuine outrage, and pure solidarity. Shira, bothered by the fact that we live in a world where such atrocities can go on under the very nose of viewers worldwide, was reminded of the Jewish holocaust under Nazi Germany. This time, Shira felt, someone has to shake the system. The world cannot afford to remain silent time after time.

It worked. A few inspired individuals came to her assistance. The group went public and started promoting the event obsessively. I was already involved with another initiative on the same issue when I noticed Shira’s activity on the Web. We finally decided to help Shira with her plans, instead of competing for attention.

Shira’s letter “Something from the gut about what is happening in Syria”, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, can be found here, on the event page:

Youtube clips from Israel

Another organizer, Irit Kashani, went around Tel-Aviv interviewing Israelis and produced this clip to promote the event:

Here is a quick youtube summary of the final event in Tel-Aviv, after the march reached its final destination:

The artist you see playing is Arkadi Duchin, a well-known Israeli musician who was eager to take part in such an event weeks beforehand. There were four other musicians who played in the event, not seen here. One of them played Syrian tunes on a typical Syrian flute, which I thought was a beautiful tribute. Another nice tribute was that in-between all the difficult clips that were screened at the event, there was also a pause to remind people of the beauty and respectable heritage of the land of Syria and its people. A series of slides were projected showing archaeological sites, modern city squares, touristic attractions, Syrian traditions, with Syrian tunes playing in the background.

The lady you see speaking in the video is Shira, reading yet another personal letter she wrote, this one addressed to Amal. Amal is the Syrian lady seen projected on the screen, facing the wall, giving her heartbreaking testimony while trying to keep her identity safe. Shira’s letter to Amal was yet another emotional demonstration of honest care and solidarity, written from one woman to another, not going into politics, not making any further calculation, just a gut reaction, as you would expect people to react.

Another speaker you see on the video is Mossa Mossa, an Arab Israeli who noticed the preparations for the event and volunteered to help with writing signs in Arabic. Mossah asked to say a few words on stage, and if you understand some Arabic, here you can find the full speech by Mossa, which I thought spoke amazingly well:

On the night of our event in Tel-Aviv, Yair Bartal, one of the organizers, went on stage and read out a few comments left by Syrians on the event page on Facebook. Those remarks were amazing to hear. People in Syria knew we were planning a public show of solidarity for them, and they were touched. Their message back to Israelis was that Israelis should not fear a free Syria, that Syrians are of the most educated and open-minded people in the region, that a free Syria would put an end to the Iranian project in the region, that they will remember who showed support for their cause and who did not, and that they are thankful.

I met with Mossa Mossa and with Irit Kashani last night in Jerusalem, two weeks after the event took place in Tel-Aviv. All of us noticed something similar. While trying to raise awareness towards the obvious atrocities taking place in Syria daily, we were criticized for not showing the same solidarity towards Palestinians. Showing how brutal the Syrian regime was, we were told Israel was just as bad. Trying to argue there is an emergency requiring special attention to Syria, we were told to first solve our own problems with the Palestinians…

I have much to say about the comparison between the two issues, one Arab-Israel, the other 100% Syrian, but I do not want to take part in the trend of shifting global attention to Israel all of the time. There is something obviously wrong going on in Syria, and on this I hope people can agree. Looking at the clips uploaded by Syrians, I hear their words. They are asking “where is the world”, “where are the Muslims”, “the world must see this”, “this is too much, help us!”. I feel for the Syrians. They are trying to get our attention. Can we not afford to address the issue without involving Israel for once?

As I tried explaining, it’s not easy to choose a side and show support, since the Syrian opposition is not exactly Mr. Nice Guy. The only thing I can think of that’s worth doing for Syria is to show our support for freedom, our support for life, and our discontent with any call for vengeance.

I personally don’t care which faction ends up taking the lead in Syria, so long as they establish a stable society where minorities can feel welcome and safe. If they can contain the variety within their own society and allow some basic freedoms, that would imply they might also get along well with other countries.

The only way that can happen, is if Syrians make the choice themselves, and create a healthy society. They must choose to get along among themselves, and work together for the benefit of all Syrians. The desire to first eradicate the criminals is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. Learning to get along is the cure.

The role we have to play in this is minor. We can only express our desire to see that day come. But that is in-fact not such a minor thing. By showing global support for pluralism, tolerance, humanism and freedom, we will be shaping the future of the planet.

The world is a dynamic place. Empires rise and fall. Communism came and went. Democracy rules in some areas today. Ideologies battle with each other all the time. Anything is fair, it’s only a question of which one gets most of the support. Syria is at a tipping point. Syrians have a choice to make. It’s their show. All I am asking is that the free world present an attractive alternative to Syria and other countries in the region – become a member of the free world.

Here is the bottom line, and the moral of this story. It is another message written by a Syrian, addressed to the Israelis present at the event in Tel-Aviv, but relevant to readers all over the free world:

“Only free nations can live in peace with other free nations. Free people should support freedom in other places.”

This post was not written for your amusement. It was written to motivate you into action. Say what kind of Syria you wish to see, and look for a partner there who has a similar vision. If the free world doesn’t do this well enough, Syria might just tip in the other direction. I’d rather not think what the outcome of that might be.

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