JERUSALEM — Israel’s former chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, boldly stated Thursday that what is taking place in neighboring Syria is a Holocaust. He also criticized Israel’s long-standing position to not get involved in that country’s civil war and said he dreamed Israel would step up to stop what is happening a few miles from its northern border.
Born in Poland, Lau was the youngest prisoner — 8 years old — to be freed from the Nazi extermination camp of Buchenwald some 72 years ago. As a Holocaust survivor, Lau, who now serves as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, is aware of the sensitivity Israelis feel comparing other genocides to the magnitude of what happened to the Jews in Europe during World War II.
But in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday, two days after reports that a chemical attack in a rebel-held area of northern Syria had killed nearly 100 people, the rabbi said unequivocally that what is happening there today is a Holocaust.
“Of course, this is a ‘shoah’ of the Syrian people and it did not start today. For the past six years since they have been living in a Holocaust,” said Lau, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
Lau, who has spoken out before about what is taking place in Syria, said he strongly rejects Israel’s position that it should refrain from taking sides or getting involved in the civil war in any way.
He said he did not care about politics or strategic alliances and declared that he wanted to see Israel, “a nation that has suffered more than any other nation,” go in and save children and other innocents who are suffering in Syria.
“We do not enjoy bloodshed, this is human blood,” said the rabbi. “Your neighbor does not have to share your nationalism or worldview; he was created in the image of God.”
Israel and Syria share a border in Israel’s north but there are no formal ties between the two countries, which have technically been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.
Since the start of the fighting in Syria, Israel has consistently stated that its official policy is not to comment or get involved, except to respond militarily to stray rockets and shots that spill over from the fighting.
In addition, Israel provides medical assistance to Syrian nationals and fighters who arrive at the border fence in need of help. To date, hundreds of Syrian victims of the war have been treated in an Israeli field hospital, as well as in hospitals inside Israel.
In an interview with a Croatian newspaper, published in English Thursday by Syria’s official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that a war already existed between Syria and Israel. He said that those opposing him inside his country were “fighting for Israel.”
“Even if they are not a regular Israeli army, they are still fighting for Israel. And Israel shares the objectives with Turkey, the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other states. They all share the same objective. It is a war that has taken a new form and uses new instruments. Practically, our victory over the terrorists is a victory over all those states put together,” said Assad.
Most of the world believes Assad is behind Tuesday’s chemical attack in the rebel-controlled Idlib province. Syria has accused the insurgents of using the toxic weapons.
In Israel, the attack renewed the debate over whether to take a more active role in what is happening in Syria.
Israel’s hard-line education minister, Naftali Bennett, on Tuesday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a special cabinet session to discuss “the security implications of Syria possessing chemical weapons and the systematic genocide being carried out in Syria.”
Netanyahu also responded to the attack, tweeting: “When I saw pictures of babies suffocating from a chemical attack in Syria, I was shocked and outraged. There's no, none, no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons.”
In December, Netanyahu announced Israel’s willingness to take in wounded women, children and male noncombatants from Syria. He said Israel was exploring ways of doing this.
So far, however, Israel is the only country bordering Syria that has not taken in refugees.
Some Israelis remain less sympathetic to the plight of their Syrian neighbors and have argued against increasing Israel’s involvement.
In an interview with Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said it was the responsibility of the international community to provide assistance in Syria and not Israel.
“Why do we need to take the chestnuts out of the fire? This is the responsibility of the international community,” he said.