In 1969 the Reform Movement issued a resolution on the use of Germ Warfare saying, “As religiously motivated men, women and youth, we enjoin President Nixon to take a moral stand here and now, that the United States unilaterally renounce experimentation with and use of germ warfare and nerve gases. Even belatedly, we press for ratification of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 renouncing the use of chemical and biological agents.” It is always sad when we have to repeat such urgent calls for human rights nearly fifty years after they are first made.
This resolution came at the height of the Vietnam War and just before President Nixon issued his directive to discontinue the U.S.’s biological weapons program. The United States went on to ratify both the Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons and Biological Weapons conventions. Nearly every country is party to these conventions and the use of chemical and biological weapons has become increasingly rare in the recent decades. However recent reports show that the nerve gas, Sarin, has been used in the worsening conflict in Syria.
Sarin is a nerve gas that can induce convulsions, suffocation and often death, and by its very nature it is likely to affect both military and civilians. The Obama Administration has previously said that the use of chemical weapons would cause the U.S. to seriously rethink how it engages in the conflict. This “red line” has been complicated by confusion around who exactly deployed the chemical weapon. While the U.S. government maintains its suspicion that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, a U.N. study concluded earlier this week that, “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”
The Syrian conflict has lasted now for over two years. According to the United Nations an estimated 70,000 people have died and 1.2 million have been forced to flee. Tensions increased earlier this week as reports that Israel had struck Syrian military targets near Damascus surfaced, although many analysts have argued that the primary goal of the strike was to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Syria denounced the strikes, and whether they have plans or military capability to retaliate remains unclear (although a number of explosive devices have landed in the Golan Heights, supposedly accidentally, over the last months).
With the recent chemical attacks, Israel’s increasing engagement and the overall deteriorating state, the United States and Russia have announced plans for an international conference aimed at ending the conflict. While details continue to develop there is a general hope that Russia’s willingness to talk – considering they have been one of Bashar Assad’s strongest supporters – could mean new room for progress. At a press conference Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the importance of this conference, “The alternative is that there is even more violence. The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos.”
Somehow, reading the Reform Movement’s statement from 1969 brings a sort of cautious optimism. We have been praying for peace and justice in warfare for generations. While the ultimate goal may not yet be realized, we see small victories again and again. It is that knowledge that brings some hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. It is that knowledge that keeps us saying od yavo shalom aleinu v’al kulam, still peace will come unto us and all the world.