Peacekeepers amid Syria’s civil war


Since 1974, the separation of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights has been “observed” by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF. The effectiveness of these peacekeepers has always been contingent on Israel and Syria “scrupulously” observing the cease fire that ended the Yom Kippur War.

For nearly 40 years, and despite mutual hostility on other fronts, the Golan border was quiet, and the 1,000-strong UNDOF patrolled the territory between the two belligerents. The Syrian civil war changed the status quo. While the Assad government has made no moves to threaten Israel, rebel militias have brought the fighting close to the border and into the “area of separation” between Syrian and Israeli forces where Syrian troops, by agreement, are forbidden to enter.

The kidnapping last month of 21 Philippine UNDOF troops by a jihadist militia, and the stray shells that have landed on the Israeli side of the border, which led Israel to fire into Syrian territory, are indications of how the UNDOF mandate is unraveling. Last week, the U.N. Security Council expressed “grave concern,” and Israel said it cannot be expected to stand by as the Syrian civil war spills into the Golan.

Amid the uncertainty, the UNDOF mandate is up for renewal in June. At first glance, it might seem better for the force to be disbanded. But without its presence — even a presence that is weakened — there will be no intermediary between Israel and the warring entities in Syria. That would leave a vacuum which would inevitably increase the chances of Israel being drawn into the conflict.

At the same time, if the UNDOF mandate is extended, and if the force is given teeth, UNDOF must remain impartial. And in this area, the U.N.’s record is not good. Israel cannot afford a repeat of the UNIFIL experience in Lebanon, where those “peacekeepers” served as a cover for Hezbollah attackers on Israel.

There’s likely a place for UNDOF, and it is worth considering an extension of its mandate. But care must be taken to assure the neutrality, fidelity and reliability of the force. We encourage a thoughtful and honest assessment of the future UNDOF role, with appropriate assurances of continued even-handedness.

No one needs an expansion of the Syrian conflict into the Golan Heights.

Yom Hashoah’s necessary story

This is a season of remembering. Last week, during the holiday of Passover, we remembered one of the defining events of Jewish history — the Exodus from Egypt. On Sunday, our community will gather to remember one of the defining events of our time — the Holocaust, and the effort to annihilate European Jewry some 70 years ago.

The annual Yom Hashoah Commemoration, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, will be held at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac and at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax. The twin gatherings remind us to remember the horrors of the Holocaust and its threat to the survival of the Jewish people, and to honor the memory of those who perished.

As the generation of those who lived through the Shoah diminishes, our memory fades. Yom Hashoah therefore calls upon us to remember the Holocaust in new ways. Until now, much of our connection to, and understanding of, the Shoah came from Holocaust survivors. We have relied on their experiences and memories to guard us from forgetting. And they have been exemplary teachers, leaders and educators.

But the perseverance of survivors is not a long-term strategy for remembering. For that we can turn to the Passover seder and its repeated exhortation to teach our children the story. The seder shows how you don’t need to be a survivor to remember, and you don’t have to have lived in the past to have a feel for it, or to appreciate it. Rather, you can “remember” through symbols, through experiences, through questions and through a ritualized telling.

In order to ensure our communal memory of the Holocaust, we need to make sure that our children are participants, or at least attendees, at our Shoah commemorations. We need to teach them to remember. We need to educate them about the symbols and the experiences of the Holocaust. And we need to recognize that it’s not going to be too long before our children will be the ones who will be relied upon to remember and retell the Holocaust story.

If we are to assure “Never again,” we need to make sure that the memory lives on, and that the story continues to be told.

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