09/05/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

"Self-interest" Morally Reprehensible Justification for Nonintervention

"Under the Hitler regime... the most important thing that I learned... was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence." -- Aug., 28, 1963, Washington, DC, Joachim Prinz, Rabbi of Berlin, exiled in 1937 to the United States

Within the past two years, and especially now after many reputable sources reported a chemical weapons attack targeting its own citizens by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the debate flares within and among nations across the globe over whether to intervene militarily. In our own country, passions run heavy on all sides of the issues.

In particular, a number of congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, are arguing that it is not in our national "self-interest" to intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil War, though estimates suggest that over 100,000 people have lost their lives since the outbreak of hostilities, and another estimated 1,000+ people, including over 400 children, suffered an excruciating death recently after exposure to lethal sarin gas.

Prominent voices claiming that we have no self-interest in the conflict include, for example, Representative Justin Amash (R-Michigan) who recently tweeted: "The Obama administration still has not presented a compelling U.S. interest in attacking #Syria or a coherent long-term strategy."

On the other side of the House aisle, Representative Alan Grayson (D-Florida) told MSNBC's Craig Melvin Aug. 31, that the United States cannot serve as the world's police force, following Secretary of State John Kerry's impassioned speech urging some sort of military strike on Syria for its chemical attack. According to Grayson: "[W]e still haven't heard anything that would explain why there's a vital U.S. national security interest in attacking Syria. That's the bottom line here. I feel bad that this [chemical] attack happened, but it wasn't an attack against Americans. It's not an attack against anything that resembles an American interest."

And Rand Paul, junior senator from Kentucky (R) stated on Meet the Press, Sept. 2: "I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened. I don't see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war."

Though I personally have not reached a conclusion whether to support a military strike, I feel strongly that the United States must dramatically increase its humanitarian aid including medical services for the countless Syrians forced to abandoned their homes and communities as well as the millions taking refuge in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. I also believe that all possible diplomatic options must remain open, especially working collectively under the auspices of the United Nations.

Returning to the debate on military intervention in Syria, I resolutely reject the notion of "self interest" as THE red line, THE bottom line, the line in the sand, as the sole, or as the primary consideration as many political leaders and pundits seem to argue. As a lifelong student of the history of genocides, I have come to understand the conditions necessary for mass slaughters to ensue, whether during the German Holocaust, the genocide of Armenians by the Turks, Cambodians under Pol Pot, First Nation peoples by Europeans in the Americas, and the carnage in Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, the former Soviet Union, many other countries throughout the history of humanity.

These conditions include the presence of a strong leader or leaders who effectively, through stereotyping and scapegoating, dehumanize or "other-ize" a group within its citizenry while a significant percentage of the population and the remainder of the countries around the world fail to intervene. On a micro level, I understand this, similarly, as the conditions for bullying in our schools and within our society writ large.

The United States thought only of its "self-interest" by turning out its lamp on the huddled masses yearning to breathe free during the 1930s. For example, in 1939, the Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which if enacted would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe over existing quotas. In another case, The MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner under its captain, Gustav Schröder, set sail in 1939 with 937 German Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Germany to find safety abroad. Country after country, including Cuba, the United States, and Canada, however, denied these homeless, the tempest tossed entry because these countries did not see it in their self-interest. The ship had to turn back to Europe. Historians estimate that approximately one-fourth of the passengers perished in concentration camps.

I often reflect on what might have been the result if the world had acted earlier and not only in its supposed "self-interest" alone in the 1930s and whether my Polish and Hungarian Jewish relatives might have lived out their lives having the possibility of dying ultimately of "natural" causes rather than suffering the brutality that took them from us all too soon. How many of them would be here today celebrating the New Year of 5774 with us during this holiest time on our Jewish calendar?