For nearly a decade, Shlomo Bolts, 27, has been an activist for human rights and against war atrocities as well as a proponent of Jewish-Arab dialogue. Born in New Jersey and raised Orthodox Jewish in Miami, he attended Jewish day school. He became involved in Middle East issues at Columbia University, where he majored in political science and sociology. He earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University in England, where he studied the first Palestinian intifada and the ongoing violence in India’s contested Kashmir region.
A Syrian Jew on his mother’s side, Bolts works as a policy and advocacy officer at the Syrian American Council, a lobbying group where he produces policy papers, reports, op-eds and briefings.
What is your family history?
My great-grandmother was from Aleppo, Syria, and came to the U.S. at about the time of World War I. It was a very tumultuous time in the region since the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. My father’s side is European, partly from [what is now] Belarus in the city of Vitebsk. They left before Hitler got started [with the Final Solution] in the 1930s. They came here as refugees.
Describe your great-grandmother’s journey
My great-grandmother was in Aleppo, as part of the Dweck family. There were a lot of Syrian Jews named Dweck. When my great-grandmother came here, she was in El Paso Texas, for a while, and then they moved to Brooklyn. They then went to Miami, where my grandmother grew up.
Describe your time as a political activist at Columbia.
This is where I learned Arabic. I was involved in trying to bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs. At the time, I was working on issues like Darfur, as part of campaigns to end genocide. We did a big rally in Central Park.
And at Cambridge during the Arab Spring?
I was pushing for intervention. At one protest I was at, people held photo signs of the dictators with giant X’s on them. I was holding the sign with [Syrian President Bashir al] Assad on it. I felt like all of the dictators had to go.
By April 2012, there was a big massacre in Homs [by the Syrian government against armed rebels]. I had to do something for them.
Then your research was on the Syrian conflict …
I remember one of my last conversations with my grandmother. She told me that Aleppo had been such a beautiful city. I remember how vigorously she said that. It was something I kept in the back of my mind.
In July 2012, I wanted to work more directly with the pro-democracy people, because the policy community wasn’t getting it. I wanted to amplify the pro-democracy groups. I worked with two groups: POMED [Project on Middle East Democracy] and Syrian Expatriates Organization. I now work with Syrian American Council.
What if Assad’s government was replaced by a radical Islamist regime?
I don’t agree with this attitude, which I know is prevalent among some in Israel, which is: “If you let the dictators go, the extremists will take power.” That’s a surface explanation. The full explanation is that the dictators are cultivating the extremists so that they force the West to keep them in power for fear of the [radicals]. The solution is to get the dictators out of power and find a group’s leader willing to participate in the democratic process, even if he is crazy.
What is your goal?
Sounding the alarm [on the Syrian civil war] is exactly it. The fact that we can ignore genocide is an idea that should have been disabused a long time ago. To the American Jewish community, I say it has everything to do with you. It’s not going to stop if we just bury our heads in the sand. This is a genocide, and it’s being carried out by many anti-Israel militias from Iranian proxies. And on the other side are people who want freedom and live their own lives.