Guilty of Caring: The Jews and Darfur
During a June press conference in Sudan, the country’s cantankerous president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, responding to the burgeoning international call for United Nations soldiers to be deployed in the war-ravaged Darfur region of his country, let loose a rebuke slamming the sentiment.
Restoring order, he insisted, should remain the responsibility of the African Union, though its poorly equipped 7,000 peacekeeping troops have thus far proved unable to stanch ongoing violence.
Then he blamed the Jews.
“It is clear that there is a purpose behind the heavy propaganda and media campaigns” for United Nations intervention, President al-Bashir said, replying to journalists’ questions. “If we return to the last demonstrations in the United States, and the groups that organized the demonstrations, we find that they are all Jewish organizations.”
The accusation, says Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was a clear attempt to exploit anti-Jewish feelings in the region. Still, he says, he can think of worse things to be accused of. “It’s something that we wear as a badge of honor—that we’ve helped draw the world’s attention to Sudan,” Pelavin says. “We’ll apologize to no one for having done so.”
Both within and outside the american jewish community, there’s a consensus that, from day one, Jewish groups have been a driving force in the growing coalition working to end the continuing genocide in the western Sudanese province of Darfur—raising money, lobbying leaders, training activists, coordinating postcard-writing campaigns, generating ideas and playing a leading role in organizing April 30th’s Save Darfur rally in Washington, one of several gatherings that day to which al-Bashir was referring.
“A lot of the grass-roots mobilization came out primarily through the Jewish community,” says Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for international affairs and peace at the National Council of Churches USA. “Without that help I don’t think the rally would have come off nearly as well as it did.”
All involved make sure to point out that, while the Jewish community played an essential role in instigating the movement to help the people of Darfur, it has since become a truly broad coalition encompassing religious, ethnic and issue-oriented groups from across the board—including Christians, Muslims, Jews and other faith-based groups. The beating heart of the movement is known as the Save Darfur Coalition (www.savedarfur.org). An amalgam of over 100 faith-based organizations, the coalition was launched in 2004 by the American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington at an “emergency summit” that was addressed by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
The Holocaust link is not accidental. “When you discover that people are being slaughtered by their next-door neighbors and that the people who are doing all the rapes and murders—the Janjaweed—are yelling ethnic slogans, it reminds you of every Holocaust story you’ve ever heard,” says Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of AJWS, who has visited the area twice. “What else could you think of but the Holocaust?”
Indeed, as posters held aloft at the april rally attested, even some of the language used in the effort has clear Jewish pedigree: “Never Again” has become a recurring rallying cry, as Jews, keenly aware of the ravages of genocide, draw the parallel between Darfur and the Holocaust. “It’s been adopted by everyone, but we know what it refers to,” says Martin Raffel, senior associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which has entered into a partnership with the AJWS to mobilize and coordinate the efforts of the American Jewish community. “We really mean it. Not that we have in our power to prevent genocides, but we should be working as hard as we can to prevent them and to stop them when they begin. It’s in our soul. It’s an integral part of who we are as a community.”
As such, among the organizations leading the way on Darfur has been the Holocaust museum’s Committee on Conscience, which issued a genocide alert even before the United States government did. The committee’s director, Jerry Fowler, has visited the region and put up the first major exhibit—“Who Will Survive Today? Genocide Emergency: Darfur, Sudan,” on view at the museum in Washington—on what’s been unfolding there.
It’s not just the Holocaust, though, that has spurred the Jewish community to action: Jews have taken a prominent role in many significant human rights battles, from the civil rights movement to the American labor movement. In addition, Raffel says, Jews—and others—may be making up for what was not done in Rwanda during the 1994 massacres there. “I think that some of us feel a certain sense of responsibility that we weren’t more active in [that] period and we weren’t going to let that happen again.”
Since 2003, the so-called Janjaweed, government-supported Arab militias in Darfur, have waged a murderous campaign against black Africans in this desert region, pillaging, raping, beating and torturing thousands—and killing as many as 400,000 Darfuris. With the area beset by famine and disease and vulnerable to the Janjaweed, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement estimates that since 2003, some 200,000 civilians, many women and children, have sought refuge in neighboring Chad. Despite the fact that the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement on May 5 with the leading rebel group, the bloodshed persists.
The Jewish response, movement leaders say, has been strong and steady, ranging from the grass-roots all the way up to Washington’s halls of power. According to Chuck Thies, rally director for the coalition, the April gathering drew between 50,000 to 75,000 people. Participants say that Jews were out in force that day, over-represented in relation to their numbers nationally among the diverse group of attendees. The coalition is planning another march in New York on September 17 to coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. A special effort is being made to broaden the scope of those taking part.
“I think any time you increase the membership and the community that is this coalition, you benefit the people of Darfur,” says Thies, who is not Jewish. “For obvious reasons, the Jewish community is particularly sensitive to the issue of genocide. It only makes sense that Jews would be among the first to rally in the face of genocide…. When the Jewish community does rally around an issue, it’s very effective.”
Shortly before the April rally—which included speeches by Wiesel, Hollywood actor George Clooney and politicians—nearly a dozen religious leaders, members of Congress and others, Jews and non-Jews alike, were arrested in front of Sudan’s embassy in Washington protesting the atrocities in Darfur. Among them were several rabbis, Messinger and Representative Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Jewish leaders have also met with President Bush on the issue.
In addition, interreligious and interdenominational groups visited American embassies and consulates of NATO and African Union countries across the United States over the summer as part of the Religious Action Center’s “30 Days for Darfur” campaign.
But despite all the activity, leaders of the movement acknowledge that there’s a long way to go before it can claim success. “I think that we are still in enormous difficulty as concerns Darfur because, though all these efforts to mitigate suffering are necessary, they don’t actually address the problem,” says Rev. Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College in New York. Reversing “the genocidal practices on the ground,” he says, will require military intervention, and Christian groups have been particularly reluctant to call for such action. This is largely to do with their fidelity to the “just-war theology,” whose intent was to limit the justifications for going to war. Now, Chilton says, “is a moment for all religious communities to review the questions of the morality of war and to distinguish the morality of war from the morality of military intervention.
“It really is time to say we need this kind of action,” he adds.
Pelavin’s group is involved in an effort to do just that: The “Blue Helmet Campaign” is an initiative to push leaders at the United Nations to “re-hat” the forces now in Darfur, transferring the African Union peacekeeping mission there into a United Nations force.
In a related development, the coalition in July reached its goal in the “Million Voices for Darfur” campaign, collecting one million postcards asking President Bush to “support a stronger multinational force to protect the people of Darfur.”
Even so, the finish line still appears far off.
“The point of the coalition is to stop that violence and allow the people of Darfur a safe return to their homes,” Messinger says. “We’re a long way from that.”
Chanan Tigay has written for Agence France-Presse, United Press International, The Jerusalem Report and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.