An Exemplar of the Best of America

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.
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No, it is way too soon to pop the cork and pour the champagne. True, President Bush has announced new American sanctions against Sudan and promised greater American effort to persuade the United Nations to take more vigorous action on behalf of Darfur. But three years after then-secretary of state Colin Powell declared that what’s happening in Darfur is genocide and nearly two years after Bush did, too, the horror persists — by now, more than 400,000 dead and 2 million driven from their homes, hundreds of villages destroyed and thousands of women and girls raped. The tragedy of Darfur is far from over.

Still, even the belated Bush half-measures are noteworthy, albeit less as a credit to Bush than to the hard, persistent and sophisticated work of the Save Darfur Coalition. Save Darfur was founded on July 14, 2004, by the American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the Powell use of “genocide” to describe the situation in Darfur came just two months later.

The body the two organizations founded has grown into what is almost certainly the broadest foreign policy coalition of modern times, perhaps ever — 150 faith, humanitarian and human rights organizations with little history of cooperation. Among very many others (89 national and 31 regional organizations), there’s the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Amnesty International USA, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches, Armenian Church of America and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

And then there are the Jewish organizations, stunning in their abundant presence: AJWS and the Holocaust Museum, the founders, and American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Edah, Hadassah, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Life, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Healthcare International, Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Jewish World Watch, Kesher, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Na’amat USA, National Council of Jewish Women, National Jewish Democratic Council, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbis for Human Rights North America, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Shalom Center, Social Action Committee of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations,, c/o Jewish Family & Life!, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Tikkun, Union for Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Union for Traditional Judaism, United Jewish Communities, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Ve’ahavta, Women for Reform Judaism, Women’s America ORT, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, plus 18 regional organizations — 59 in all.

The Soviet Jewry movement in its day was as broadly supported, as, of course, was and is Israel. But that’s it. No other cause in recent memory — not Bosnia, Kosovo or Cambodia — comes close to recruiting so diverse a set of Jewish organizations.

What lesson is there in this instance of e pluribus unum, of so conventionally contentious a community as ours joining shoulder to shoulder?

One lesson: Darfur makes an easy case. What has happened and is happening there is utterly outrageous, there are no raisons d’etat (such as a relationship between Sudan and Israel that might be damaged) to deter us, and the word “genocide,” for painfully and enduringly obvious reasons, evokes our instant attention.

Another lesson: Entities such as Save Darfur don’t suddenly appear ex nihilo, no matter how compelling the cause that prompts them. They are the result of much sweat by a small number of people, often moved in the first instance by a meshuga l’davar echad (literally a monomaniac, but with a much more positive sense in the Hebrew rendering). In the case at hand, the person who early on grabbed hold of the Darfur issue and whose grand passion it has become is Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, working initially and closely with Jerry Fowler, director of the Committee on Conscience of the Holocaust Museum. (It will perhaps surprise, and inspire, the reader to learn that the museum’s Committee on Conscience is charged with working “to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity.”)

It is because of their dogged determination that the Save Darfur Coalition exists, itself a remarkable exemplar of the best of America and, in particular, of an America whose great faith communities can from time to time make vital common cause. One cannot say for sure what it was that led Bush finally to up the actual (and not merely rhetorical) ante re Darfur, but we may suppose that the participation of the National Association of Evangelicals didn’t hurt.

(Nor, in any discussion of American reactions to Darfur can the persistence of Nicholas Kristof, the Op-Ed columnist of The New York Times, be omitted. Kristof, too, has made Darfur his signature cause, and done so brilliantly and compellingly.)

One more lesson: While all the organizing and all the talking and writing are worthy endeavors, the attention of President Bashir of Sudan is otherwise engaged. Neither the international mobilization on Darfur’s behalf nor the sanctions on Sudan have so far reduced the killing, the cruelty, the terror, the tragedy.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he wants more time for diplomacy and he opposes both the new American sanctions and America’s effort to increase U.N. sanctions; China remains an important and eager commercial partner of Sudan and Russia is no advocate of more U.N. action.

The task now, therefore, is to ensure that Bush is kept honest, and that he be made aware that only when the genocide is stopped will the Save Darfur Coalition and its allies rest. The president has many excuses not to do more; he must not be allowed to rest with what he has so far done. Fortunately, the coalition holds the trump card, that card on which are inscribed just two words: Never again.

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