Jewish Groups Step up Efforts to Stop Crisis Developing in Sudan
It seems the phrase “never again” isn’t just for the Holocaust anymore. In recent weeks, Jewish groups have stepped up their efforts to stop the government-sponsored killing of tens of thousands of black Muslims in Sudan. The efforts have come as world attention begins to focus on the crisis in Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of black Africans have fled their homes to escape violence.
Late last month, President Bush made available up to $34 million for special refugee needs in Sudan and neighboring Chad, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.N.’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan, visited the Sudan refugee camps last week. After the visits, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir promised he would reign in government-backed Arab militias and allow human rights observers into the disputed region of Darfur.
But most observers are skeptical that the government will make good on its promises, and pressure on the Khartoum government is mounting. Most Jewish fund raising focuses on internal Jewish issues, such as support for Israel, Israeli victims of terrorism, local social services and the needs of Jewish communities around the world.
But Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who for several years has been trying to place the Sudan violence on the public agenda, said there’s no reason Jews shouldn’t focus on other people’s problems too. “I do it as a Jew because I think Jews should be sensitive to other peoples as well,” Wiesel said. “I cannot just live isolated.” Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, agrees.
“We’re capable of taking positions and, frankly, we’re capable of raising money for more than just one issue,” Messinger said. These positions on Sudan increasingly are becoming public. This week, the Washington-area Jewish Community Council is hosting an interfaith vigil to protest the killings in Sudan. That comes on the heels of a protest last week at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “When genocidal activity is going on, Jews need to be at the forefront,” Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s director, told JTA at the rally. “We’ve been the quintessential victims.”
Part of the motivation seems to be the feeling that Jewish groups didn’t do enough the last time questions of genocide were raised, in Rwanda in 1994. “During both the Holocaust and Rwanda genocide, warnings were received and ignored,” Jerry Fowler, staff director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in an Op-Ed for The Washington Post after visiting a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad.
“Today we say ‘never again.’ The question now is whether we will ignore warnings while the Africans of Darfur perish and then – once again – say ‘never again,’ ” he said. On June 24, the Holocaust museum stopped all its activities for 30 minutes to draw attention to the Sudan crisis. The museum now features information about the situation in Sudan on its Internet home page.
Some may be surprised that the Holocaust museum is involved in drawing attention to other mass killings, but it’s part of the museum’s mission, Fowler said in an interview. “One way that we honor the memory that we’re preserving is by trying to have an effect on the world that we live in,” he said. As public efforts have stepped up, so have behind-the-scenes moves aimed at humanitarian relief.
The Jewish Disaster Relief Coalition, made up of some 45 Jewish groups across the political and religious spectrum, set up a mailbox for humanitarian relief for Sudanese facing homelessness and starvation in the camps, after they were chased from their homes by Arab Muslim marauders armed by the government.
The coalition’s efforts were spurred by the American Jewish World Service, which convened a meeting of the coalition a few months ago. The World Service supports humanitarian and economic projects, mainly in the developing world. At that time, coalition members weren’t ready to take a stand on the issue, Messinger said.
Part of the problem may have been lack of understanding about the complex situation in Sudan. The country has been in upheaval for two decades as a result of civil war between Muslims in the north and Christians and animists in the south. An estimated 2 million people died in the fighting, which began in 1983 and subsided a bit only earlier this year.
Last year, more violence broke out after the Sudanese government exploited ethnic tensions in Darfur, a western region of the country. Nomadic Arab tribes long have been in conflict with their African farming neighbors over Darfur’s water and arable land. The tensions exploded after two African rebel groups took up arms against the government in February 2003 over what they regarded as unjust government treatment in their struggle with Arab countrymen.
At least 30,000 people have been killed in the revolt, which has precipitated a refugee problem. The government denies that it has supplied arms and encouraged violence, but there are widespread reports by witnesses of government airplanes and helicopter gunships backing the militias, known as janjaweed, or horsemen.
After members of the Jewish disaster relief coalition learned more about Sudan – in part from increased media attention – they decided to take action. In addition to what some individual groups had collected, the coalition, through its mailbox at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, had collected $11,000 as of last week. The amount raised is minuscule compared to the sums raised for emergency campaigns for Israel. But those involved in the Sudan campaign say the issue shouldn’t be ignored.
“If the message of the Holocaust is ‘never again’ when it comes to genocide, it means ‘never again,’ ” said Reva Price, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization for local community relations councils. “We have to get that right.” Money for Sudanese refugees can be sent via the Internet at www.jcdr.org or by mail to JDC: Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief, Box 321, 847A Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
JTA intern Justin Bosch in Washington contributed to this report.