Major Effort To Stir Action On Darfur Lowers Sights

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.

After months of mobilizing for what has been described as a major effort to stop an unfolding genocide, planners of next week’s national action for Darfur are now speaking in measured terms of a radically more modest effort.

Leaders of the main effort, scheduled for April 30 in Washington, were reluctant to offer projections of turnout. But several people closely involved in the campaign offered an estimate of 20,000, and interviews with organizers in several cities reinforced that prediction.

One prominent activist said he had been led to believe that the rally was aiming to draw hundreds of thousands, in order to shake the national conscience.

No less disappointing, the mobilization — seen by organizers as an outreach effort building on the Jewish experience of genocide but embracing broader circles — does not appear to have drawn comparable attention from non-Jewish partners.

“If the numbers are so low, I think it will not be a success,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Manhattan’s historic Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. If the crowd is “disproportionately Jewish, that’s only to the credit of the Jewish community. But if it’s disproportionately Jewish, it won’t be a success.”

Regardless of turnout, the rally will likely be the largest public action to date on Darfur since the eruption in 2003 of mass killing there, which the Bush administration and others have termed genocide. The rally and related events come as violence spreads from Darfur, a Texas-sized region of western Sudan, to nearby Chad. Militias sponsored by Sudan, a member of the Arab League, invaded Chad last week with the apparent goals of hunting down refugees and overthrowing the government that sheltered them.

For the past three years, government-allied militias, mostly Arab Muslims, have fomented a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out the region’s ethnically black Muslim farmers. More than 400,000 people have been killed or succumbed to disease and malnutrition. Some 2.5 million people have been displaced, more than 200,000 fleeing to Chad.

The April 30 rally is being organized under the aegis of the Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella organization of more than 150 religious and human rights groups that has a disproportionate Jewish presence. Scheduled speakers include author Elie Wiesel, rap impresario Russell Simmons and Olympic skater Joey Cheek.

Smaller rallies are planned the same day in other cities around the country, including Tucson, Ariz.; Austin, Texas; Boca Raton, Fla., and Portland, Ore. The day’s second-largest event is set to take place in San Francisco, where organizers expect 2,000 people. A May 1 rally is planned in Chicago.

With just over a week to go before the main event in Washington, turnout was difficult to predict with certainty, but five organizers with different groups in the campaign all projected about 20,000 people on the National Mall.

According to Chuck Thies, the Save Darfur Coalition’s rally director, the advance permit issued by the capital’s Department of Parks and Recreation, for the section of the National Mall between 3rd and 4th Streets, says that the area can hold up to 75,000 demonstrators. He predicted that “tens of thousands of people of conscience” would participate.

Rallies that draw national attention typically have involved numbers in the hundreds of thousands. A 1969 rally against the Vietnam War drew more than one million people to the mall. Nationwide rallies earlier this month for immigrant rights drew millions, including some 500,000 in Los Angeles alone. A famed 1987 Washington rally for Soviet Jewry drew some 250,000. The most recent effort at mass Jewish mobilization, a 2002 Washington rally for Israel organized in less than a month, drew between 100,000 and 150,000.

Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, which is at the forefront of the mobilization, declined to estimate the expected turnout. However, she told the Forward that the event would be “bigger than we thought we could pull off in four months.”

“I don’t draw any immediate parallel between this and Soviet Jewry, or this and the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement efforts,” Messinger said. “Those all had a longer life and a broader outreach, and if it is necessary to keep this pressure on, I promise that people who are organizing for April 30 will find lots and lots of ways to keep this pressure on.”

Last Sunday, a full-page advertisement for the rally appeared in The New York Times. The ad was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Jewish groups have poured money and resources into Darfur advocacy since 2004, when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum first issued a genocide alert. The world service has played a lead role; it provided the initial funding to launch the Save Darfur Coalition in 2004, and currently contributes one-third of the coalition’s $1.6 million operating budget. The balance comes from individual donations and from the sale of merchandise.

Major Christian organizations — including the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of the Christ and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — sit on the coalition’s 11-member steering committee. Churches also have been lobbying actively in Washington and internationally to press for military intervention.

At press time, the Jewish community was the only constituency chartering fleets of buses to Washington. Beyond the Washington metro area, the biggest Jewish contingent is slated to come from New York City, where the JCC in Manhattan plans to fill 100 buses, partly subsidized by a $30,000 grant from UJA-Federation. Synagogues and schools across the denominational spectrum are participating; Yeshiva University alone has reserved eight buses.

The Jewish community has “simultaneously the resources to mobilize, and a relationship to the issue,” said Sarah Kay, director of community programs at the JCC in Manhattan. “Most groups have one or the other.”

More than a dozen buses are slated to depart from both Northern New Jersey and Westchester. Nearly that many are expected to leave from Baltimore and Cleveland, and slightly smaller numbers from Boston and Philadelphia. Others will come from as far away as Detroit and Maine.

In Philadelphia, with the second-largest Jewish community in the Northeast, participation has been dampened by communitywide Holocaust remembrance events scheduled for the same day, several sources said.

Beyond the Jewish community, Darfur coalition organizers said they expect contingents from colleges, local Darfur groups and individual churches and dioceses. In Washington, black churches are mounting a participation drive. Presbyterian churches in New York have directed congregants to the JCC buses, and black ministers have partnered with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

Large-scale efforts to mobilize other faith communities, however, are not taking place. The relatively small Darfur coalition staff has focused its efforts on rally logistics and on a media campaign, while national church groups mainly notified members of the event.

“The one community that’s been doing the most is the Jewish community,” said Martha Heinemann, a coalition staffer. “The other communities, because they sort of have a lot of other things going on and a lot of time and resource constraints… are letting local communities work within themselves.”

The Washington representative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Shelley Moskowitz, said her church group has limited resources for mobilization because of “the other work that’s on the plate,” including coordination of a fact-finding mission currently in Sudan and “long-term education and action work on this issue.”

Princeton Lyman, a longtime Africa and human-rights specialist at the State Department who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he believed that the rally would provide a strategic push to the Darfur campaign even if the numbers turn out to be relatively small.

“The administration has said all the right things,” Lyman said. “But I think the more it sees this as a significant issue for the American public, it pushes Darfur higher on the agenda.” The rally, he said, is “one more element” adding to momentum on the issue as it gains ground in Congress, on college campuses and in the media.

Others, like Hirsh, the rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue — which has mounted its own campaign in recent months — feared that tens of thousands of protesters would be insufficient. To succeed in “shaming the government into doing more and shaming the world community and shaming the United Nations,” Hirsch said, “you need a critical mass of people.”



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