Opinion surveys, especially those taken by telephone over a short space of time, are greatly flawed. Of that, there is no question. These surveys are meant to gauge public opinion, but the samples are too small, the respondents often say what they think the pollster wants to hear, and so they do not always accurately reflect what people think.
They are, however, the best barometer of public opinion that we have, short of referenda, which themselves are flawed because of such factors as the number of people who do not vote, and the number who do without having taken the time to study the issues.
That is why it is so disheartening to see the spate of surveys that suggests that Americans are at the least ambivalent about punishing the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons against its own people – weapons that took the lives of 1,429 people and seriously injured over 2,000 more.
One survey, released on Tuesday, has 75 percent of respondents saying they believed Syria used chemical weapons, but 72 percent also said the United States should stay out of it. Sixty-two percent do not even want the United States to be involved in international affairs of any kind.
I wonder whether we the people would feel the same if the chemical weapon attack had occurred in London, or in Auckland, or in Oakland. That is a harsh thought, I know, but what other reason is there for such a result? “War weariness” is an insufficient excuse in the face of piles of dead bodies, so many of them children.
It is even more disheartening that the politics-as-usual atmosphere in Washington extends even to this issue. Our elected representatives should know better, even if we ordinary citizens do not. Polls taken early this week found little support in the House of Representatives for military action to punish Syria. The picture is not much better in the Senate.
It is fatuous to suggest that the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world does not pose a serious direct threat to this country. If no action is taken to punish the perpetrators, the United States will send a green light to all who possess weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, making us just as much a target as anyone else anywhere else in the world. Why should Iran, for example, take us seriously when we demand that it stop its nuclear program or else, when our “or else” amounts to two meaningless words strung together to form an equally meaningless phrase?
What is heartening is the response of Jewish groups, which are lobbying for military action. Whether they are doing so for all the right reasons (emphasis on “all”) is subject to debate, however. That Israel may be next is a legitimate concern and even a primary one for Jewish groups, but it is not the only one.
In the Jerusalem Talmud tractate N’darim 9:4, Rabbi Akiva proclaims that “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18] is a great principle of the Torah.” His sometimes student Ben Azzai disagrees: “‘This is the record of Adam’s line’ [Genesis 5:1] is a greater principle.”
His point is obvious. We all – no matter who we are, no matter what our skin color or ethnicity, no matter our nationality or religion, no matter what our politics or philosophies – are the children of the First Human, who we are to believe was created by God in His image.
Several columns ago, I cited a midrash in which God scolded the Ministering Angels as the waters of the sea drowned the Egyptian host. “My children are dying and you are singing,” the midrash imagined God saying in rebuke.
Over and again in the Tanach, the Bible, we Jews are told that we must “walk in My ways,” as God Himself put it to our father Abraham. Our task is to emulate Him in all His qualities of mercy, kindness, justice, and compassion. If God sees all humankind as His children, can we who must walk in His ways see them differently? If God mourns the death of His children, can we who must walk in God’s ways ignore those deaths?
Jewish law is very specific about how to deal with the rodef, someone who pursues another in order to kill that person. Every effort must be made to stop the rodef. If all else fails, the rodef must be killed before he himself kills.
We who are taught to believe that we are God’s priests to the world, His holy nation, commanded by Him to teach His ways of equity and justice to the world, have no right to be insular or discriminating in our approach to that world.
Of course our foremost concern must be whether WMDs will be used against Israel. We must also, however, be concerned – period. “My children are dying.” Their murderers must be punished. The God of mercy is also the God of justice, a fact reiterated throughout Yom Kippur. Mercy and justice must guide us, as well.
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (See Micah 6:9.)