Last week 17 prominent rabbis and Jewish intellectuals signed a letter urging Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria.
The moving force behind the letter? A 25-year-old Orthodox political scientist who has been working with the anti-Assad Syrian Expatriates Organization in Washington for the last year.
Shlomo Bolts was born in Highland Park, though he grew up in Miami, where he attended Jewish day school and high school before returning north to study at Columbia University. It was there that he became involved in Middle East issues; he majored in political science and sociology – his undergraduate thesis was on religious politics in Israel – and then earned a masters degree at Cambridge University, where he studied the first Palestinian intifada and the concurrent revolt in Kashmir.
Bolts worked on the petition with Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization. (Bolts emphasized, however, that Yanklowitz worked on the petition in his private capacity, since Uri L’Tzedek’s mandate is domestic. Bolts is a consultant to Uri L’Tzedek on prison reform issues.)
The petition was released last week, after President Obama turned to Congress for authorization to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons – and to the Jewish community for support in lobbying Congress. That support was granted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (see related article), but this statement put a multi-denominational list of names to the appeal and couched it as the request of “descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps.”
Locally, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne signed the letter.
While the letter limits itself to asking Congress to support Obama’s call for a response to the use of chemical weapons, Bolts personally would like to see the United States come down decisively on the side of the anti-Assad forces.
Although Bolts’ ancestry is partially Syrian – some of his family came from Aleppo – it was not his background that led him to work for the rebels now fighting the Syrian government, which is strongly supported by Iran. The prod came instead from the visit Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejah, paid to Columbia in 2007.
“The visit raised tensions, even on a personal level, between Jews and Arabs at Columbia,” Bolt said. “I was not a fan of Ahmadinejad, but I thought the backlash was a bit much.” The backlash from the Jewish students included an invitation to conservative firebrand David Horowitz.
“Horowitz says lots of bigoted things against Arabs. I don’t think his views have any place in the Jewish community,” Bolts said.
“As an Orthodox Jew, I think there’s a lot of misperceptions about Orthodox Jews, that they’re less tolerant or inherently intolerant. That said, growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community I did hear certain viewpoints that were hostile not only to Palestinian political interests, but to all Arabs. I took exception. I believe that all people were created in God’s image; this is what I was taught in school. The sort of stereotypes I was hearing against Arabs did not match up against those ideals,” he said.
At Columbia, Bolt spoke out. He got very involved with the Progressive Jewish Alliance organization, wrote an op ed denouncing Horowitz, and helped start a Jewish-Arab dialogue group to defuse the tensions.
The dialogue group led him to study Arabic. After Cambridge, he worked a think tank covering daily developments in Syria. “The reports I was reading in Arabic did not match what I saw in English,” he said. “Systematically, information that was positive for the Syrian rebels was being omitted. It happened repeatedly. I would almost say that there’s a propaganda war taking place against the Syrian rebels.”
Bolts wanted to help. So he started working as a policy fellow for the Syrian Expatriates Organization, which was formed in January 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring and then went on to support the Syrian revolution, which began in March 2011. The SEO is part of a broader Coalition for a Democratic Syria.
The Syrian groups have been urging American intervention on the side of the rebels, a position Bolts supports.
“It’s very important when you’re talking about the rebels to keep in mind that the vast majority are not backed by al Qaeda; the vast majority are in the Free Syrian Army, a Syrian group made up of defectors from the military who got sick of killing protesters along with activists who took up arms. This group supports democracy and condemns terrorism and has facilitated the growth of democratic structures in a number of areas under its control.
“In general, they don’t really carry out any sectarian killings. There are of course some scattered brigades who do some things, but these are condemned by the senior leadership very strongly. We don’t see any evidence of any pattern. Whereas for the government, they have been systematically bombarding populated areas for almost two years now.
“I don’t think our main worry should be extremists fighting among the rebels; there’s at least as many extremists fighting for the government. There’s Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shi’ites in the suburbs of Damascus, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This should be the main focus: The extremists among the Assad forces who are increasingly taking over. Among the rebels, at least there is one group that is not extremist. Among Assad’s forces, there is no group that is not extremist. One of these groups is going to win; between these choices, I think it’s obvious which one we want,” he said.
Bolts said that Russia’s support for Assad – which has made action at the United Nations impossible – should not dissuade America from supporting the rebels.
“Russia has shown that they are emboldened by U.S. inaction. They are going to help Assad more if we don’t do anything,” Bolts said, adding that the history of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict showed that they provided political cover for Assad to escalate and take a harder line.
“Why don’t we try to take some action?” Bolts said. “Maybe Russia will be supporting various nefarious efforts.”
He said that Obama’s proposal for a limited military response is good “only as a first step. This would have been an appropriate response when the regime first started using artillery against populated areas.”
And Bolts was skeptical about the proposal that emerged this week for Syrian to join the treaty against chemical weapons and move its weapons to Russia. “There have been four diplomatic initiatives before this one to try to move toward a peaceful settlement in Syria,” he said. “Each has ended not with a peaceful settlement, but with escalation by the Assad regime.”