Syria: What Obama Should Do

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Tikkun Team                                             Sept. 9, 2013

Dear Fellow Tikkunistas (those committed to tikkun olam–the healing and transforming of our world),

Aryeh Cohen, a professor of Rabbinics at the American Jewish University (and a member of the Tikkun Editorial Board) and I, wrote an op-ed on what should happen in Syria. Please read it below.

And then as chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, I participated in an outreach to Congress together with 40 “faith leaders.” I urge you to send both of these (see below) to your elected representatives and to anyone else.

I’m convinced, however, that while military action is NOT the appropriate course of action, and the United States is not the appropriate voice to lead an international response, the feeling of many people around the world that the killings in Syria have to stop comes from a very good place and is a sign of increased caring in the world about our neighbors. I only wish similar feelings had found political expression in the 1930s when both Hitler and Stalin were engaged in genocidal assaults in Germany and Russia, or when France, and later the United States, engaged in horrific killings in Vietnam and when Pol Pot’s regime led to massive killings in Cambodia and U.S. supported coups in Iran and Chile led to massive deaths.

So it’s not enough to say “no” to Obama’s plan–we also need to develop a long-term mechanism to deal with these kinds of situations, and we should use the present moment to switch the discourse from “should the United States bomb Syria?” to “how do we mobilize an effective non-violent response to mass murder inside countries of the world–and what steps can we take NOW to build the kind of institutions and global policies that will make future killings by oppressive governments significantly less likely?” And, yes, we (not just the United States, but all people on the planet) have an ethical responsibility to care for the well-being and the safety of everyone else on the planet–and no, that is not intrinsically imperialism or meddling in others’ affairs.

That we do not yet have the strategies and institutions that can immediately implement a non-violent response in these situations is not a good argument for a violent response in Syria, but it is a good reason to urgently develop those strategies and institutions now to respond to the needs of those who suffer in this world. I’ll be sharing my proposals in future issues of Tikkun (particularly the Spring 2014 issue of the magazine), but I’m anxious to hear your answers to that question–after you read and absorb the two articles below!! Please post this letter and the articles below on your web pages, facebook or other social media, and send these to every email list to which you have access.

Warm regards,

Rabbi Michael Lerner,  Editor, Tikkun

If you haven’t yet joined our interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, please do so now at or at least subscribe to Tikkun, please do it now at



How to Slow Down the Rush to War: What Obama Should Do About Syria

By Prof. Aryeh Cohen and  Rabbi Michael Lerner

The tragic dilemma we now face is that the murderous Assad regime in Syria should have been overthrown long ago, but the United States has no moral standing or credibility to be the agent of that overthrow.

The U.S. interest in Syria is not perceived by much of the world as a human rights interest. If the United States cared about human rights, it would not have armed Saddam Hussein after he gassed the Kurds in Iraq, it would not still be arming the Egyptian military after its coup and murder of thousands, it would not be arming Israel without demanding that Israel end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. The United States, finally, would not have waited until one hundred thousand Syrians were killed to begin contemplating action against Assad.

Neither can nor should we be indifferent while watching as civilians are systematically murdered. The planet has shrunk to a size where we are in fact responsible for each other’s well-being and we must take that responsibility seriously.

What is needed is a different strategic approach, an approach which is grounded in an expanded sense of moral imagination. Instead of trying to right every wrong at the moment, the United States should be involved in a global strategy to relieve the huge suffering of people on this planet.

Slow down the rush to militarism and instead let Obama use this moment to forge a whole new direction for the U.S.’s role in the world. Congress would be wise to hold town hall meetings in every Congressional district to discuss the range of options before voting to support a military intervention.

In the fierce urgency of the current crisis in Syria, in which the U.N. is blocked from acting decisively because Russia and China will use their vetoes against any action that imperils Assad, President Obama should call a conclave of the world’s other countries, all of them, and let them together decide on what should be done with regard to saving the people of Syria from its rogue regime. The specific use of chemical weapons should be referred to the World Court for possible trial of whoever is responsible for that use in Syria.

Meanwhile, the deliberations of a world conclave should be open to the public, democratic, and not controlled by the United States or other Western powers, or any one group. Let that body decide whether there should be an intervention, and if so, led by whom, with what short-term and long-term goals, and what mechanisms to ensure those goals are achieved. This creates a de facto global forum such as the UN should have been, by eliminating the ability of the Great Powers to veto any decisions made by the people of the world. Hopefully, that global forum will come up with non-violent ways to hasten the end of the Assad regime. But if that body decides on an intervention, the Obama Administration should decide if it can bring the U.S. population along with that, in part by conducting public fora throughout the United States focused on the call for an intervention issued by the nations of the world participating in that open and democratic meeting. And if the people of the United States support it, then the United States should be part of that international intervention.

Clumsy? Undoubtedly. Postponing immediate action? Certainly. But this path would  create a precedent precisely because it would slow down the hunger for more violence. It would allow the people of the world to introduce into that global forum the possibility of a different kind of logic in world affairs, a logic based on recognizing our mutual interdependence and mutual responsibility for the well-being of all.

This plan is not perfect, as many will readily point out. The governments of the world often do not actually represent their people, but often only an elite of wealth and power. The killing in Syria would not be stopped while the process went on. However, the Obama administration has all but explicitly said that the symbolic action they will take will not stop the killing either, nor would it overthrow the Assad government.

If President Obama were to use this moment to teach the world and the United States about a new direction in dealing with the forces of evil, he could take his place among the great peacemakers of the human race.

In the fierce urgency of this moment we must look beyond the tired options and rhetoric that have brought us to this place. The options are only limited by the narrow visions of the elite and the powerful. The options are only limited by a discourse and set of assumptions that should have been replaced many decades if not centuries ago. If not now, when?

Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, a contributing editor at Tikkun Magazine,  and author most recently of Justice in the City.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (which has developed a detailed plan for a Global Marshall Plan at  He is the author most recently of Embracing Israel/Palestine which you can order at


September 9th, 2013

Dear Member of Congress,

As leaders of faith-based organizations, we are writing to urge you to vote against any authorization for the use of military force in Syria. While we unequivocally condemn any use of chemical weapons along with indiscriminate killing of civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law, military strikes are not the answer.

Rather than bringing an end to the violence that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, U.S. military strikes threaten to widen the vicious civil war in Syria and undermine prospects to de-escalate the violence and eventually reach a just negotiated settlement, in which all actors are held accountable for crimes committed.

All of us recognize the challenge of the present moment in the midst of this ongoing tragedy. However, this is not a choice between military action and “doing nothing,” a frame which again is being used to legitimate violence. Rather than yielding to the temptation to fuel the fire with more violence, we see an opportunity for the United States to leverage the full weight of its diplomatic influence and resources to advance a just, negotiated settlement that includes all internal and external parties to the conflict.

Therefore, we encourage Congress and the President to support the following actions:

1) Lead international diplomatic efforts to prevent further use of chemical weapons: Governments around the world—including Iran and Russia—have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the United States should work to direct this international resolve toward decisive diplomatic action.

2) De-escalate the violence: Refrain from providing military support to the opposition and press Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to do the same, while continuing to call on Russia and Iran to cease military support for the Syrian government. Increasing violence in order to “punish,” “send a message,” or gain military advantage, in fact makes negotiations less likely to result in a durable democracy, much less a just peace.

3) Pursue a political settlement with all stakeholders of the conflict: We must signal to the world the urgency of advancing a political settlement that seeks to end the violence and ensure accountability. Negotiations should include key civil society nonviolent actors and include determination of broader accountability mechanisms.

We urge you to oppose authorization for the use of military force in Syria and instead to consider seriously these alternatives. You are in our prayers.


Ron Osborn
Executive Director
The Adventist Peace Fellowship

Samina Sundas
Founder and Executive Director
American Muslim Voice

Shan Cretin
General Secretary
American Friends Service Committee

Amaury Tañón-Santos
Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America

Carl Markelz
Carmelite Friars Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary

Mario Esposito
Carmelite Friars Province of St. Elias

Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Joel Boot
Executive Director
Christian Reformed Church in North America

Stanley J. Noffsinger
General Secretary
Church of the Brethren

Very Rev. John Edmunds, ST
Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Interim Executive Director
Episcopal Peace Fellowship

Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, D.D.
Executive Director
Global Mission
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Paul Alexander, PhD
Evangelicals for Social Action
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice

Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Executive Director
Fellowship of Reconciliation

Diane Randall
Executive Secretary
Friends Committee on National Legislation

Rev. Julia Brown Karimu & Rev. Dr. James Moos
Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ
and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Fr. Tom Smolich
Jesuit Conference

Mitzi Schroeder
Director for Policy
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

Stefan Merken
Jewish Peace Fellowship

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Executive Director
Jewish Voice for Peace

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Carol Zinn, SSJ
Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Gerry G. Lee
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

J Ron Byler
Executive Director
Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Rev. Dr. Diana C. Gibson
Founder & Convener
Multifaith Voices for Peace & Justice

Simone Campbell, SSS
Executive Director

Rabbi Michael Lerner
The Network of Spiritual Progressives

Bill Scheurer
Executive Director
On Earth Peace

Ken Butigan
Executive Director
Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service

Marie Dennis
Pax Christi International

Rick Love, Ph.D.
Peace Catalyst International

Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (USA)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence

Sister Pat McDermott
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Rev. Beau Underwood
Director of Campaigns and Advocacy

The Rev. Geoffrey Black
General Minister and President
The United Church of Christ

Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
Executive Minister
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
Ecumenical Officer, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

tags: War & Peace   
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One Response to Syria: What Obama Should Do

  1. Dr. David Friedman September 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    I agree with the sentiments expressed here by Rabbi Lerner and Professor Cohen in opposition to President Obama’s military option, but I find their statements inadequate, to say the least.

    It’s not enough to “say ‘no’ to Obama’s plan” and to point out, as they do, that the U.S. has no moral standing to make itself the military defender of Syrians or anyone else, given the U.S. record in support of dictators as bad as Assad.

    Obama has finally and unambiguously defined his presidency by assuming the power, unilaterally, to draw a “red line” — meaning military action — against the wishes of a clear majority of the American people and the rest of the nations of the world. Until the latest concession by Syria and Russia, Obama was engaged in an intensive campaign to bully the U.S. Congress into backing his unilateral drive toward military action. Even now, in his televised speech, Obama claims the right to order such action without the support of Congress, though He chooses to wait. His so-called plan for limited action is only limited to the extent that Syria or its proxies do not respond in such a way as to provoke further action by the country that bombs whoever, wherever and whenever this one man decides to bomb. This President, who is so weak on domestic affairs (or pretends to be weak in order better to serve his Wall Street backers) sees himself as an elected dictator when it comes to military matters.

    I venture to say that most, perhaps the overwhelming majority of Tikkun supporters, voted for this President — twice. Is this the Transformational President? Is this the Change We Can Believe In? Is this “the Obama that we voted for”? I can’t think how many times I have seen these phrases in Tikkun articles, editorials and reader comments. Perhaps it is time for Tikkun and NSP and their readers to reevaluate this President in more explicit terms, as well as presenting a well-intentioned but totally impractical proposal for a “conclave of the world’s countries” called by …. God help us, by President Obama himself …. the man with no moral authority beyond the confines of the White House.

    If “the U.N. is blocked from acting decisively because Russia and China will use their vetoes,” how would such a conclave not be blocked even more completely, as it is based on no existing institution whatsoever, and to be led by the man who declares his authority to launch air attacks on his own authority even if the U.S. Congress and the American people and all U.S. allies are opposed. I suggest that a political fight to place this question squarely before the U.N. is precisely the right thing to do, and simultaneously put pressure on both the U.S. leadership and the leaders of Syria’s allied countries to denounce the mass murder that has been going on, even before chemical weapons were deployed.

    I also have to take exception to the statement that “If President Obama were to use this moment to teach the world and the United States about a new direction in dealing with the forces of evil, he could take his place among the great peacemakers of the human race.” This is a statement predicated on the gigantic “If” at the beginning. One could just as well say “If Obama became a completely different President,” he would be worthy of admiration, but he won’t and he isn’t.

    One of the saddest things about this is that many prominent people in the liberal left already know that in just a short time they will be convincing themselves and others to support and vote for new national political leaders who are just as autocratic and militaristic as this President, if not more so. And those leaders know it, and count on it.

    – Dave Friedman

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