Next Sunday, Bless Our Feet


By Leonard Fein

Published April 28, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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By now, most of us know the frightening word: Janjaweed, the government supported marauders who have killed somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 villagers in the Darfur region of Sudan and chased another 2 million from their homes. It turns out that Janjaweed is a real word; it means “armed men on horses.”

There was an article in The New York Times the other day about how New York City’s mounted police force is being doubled in size, so successful has it been not only in crowd control but even in neighborhood patrols. And we’ve all by now seen how kids shyly come up to the police horses, gingerly pet them, giggle. Nice.

In Darfur, the armed men on horses come riding in and set the simple village structures on fire. You can see the satellite images online. You can see the image of a village near Shataya in which 258 of 269 structures were destroyed, or of a village near Darurja in which 180 of 240 structures were destroyed.

What you can’t see is how the Sudanese government helps in the destruction, supports the Janjaweed. Nor can you see in the images how the men of these villages have been shot and the women and girls taken to be raped.

What more is there to say that has by now not been said? How many times must we be reminded that once, not so long ago, we took an oath — we said “Never again!” — and that now, today, the again is happening?

As it happens, the White House has a new liaison to the Jewish community. In years gone by, it was often a fairly senior person who had such a liaison as part of his portfolio. Now and then, a senior Jewish leader was appointed to the role.

The new incumbent, Jay Zeidman, does not fit readily into these earlier categories. He is a 22-year-old graduate of Texas Christian University whose preparation for his new responsibilities was “attending lots of meetings of Aipac and the ADL” in Houston in the company of his father, and also serving last summer as an intern in the White House public liaison office. His father — one presumes not quite coincidentally — is a friend of and a fund-raiser for the president. And — again, not quite coincidentally — he is chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Young Zeidman recently had this to say about Darfur: “There has been a lot of discussion that the administration has not taken enough action. Bottom line, that is not accurate.” After all, he observed, President Bush repeatedly refers to what’s happening in Darfur as “genocide,” and that, Zeidman says, is a word that “should resonate” with the Jewish community.

As indeed it does.

That is why this weekend, some thousands of American Jews, along with people of other faith communities, will gather in Washington to renew the oath, to say, in our nation’s capital, that Darfur is not a marginal issue and that calling it “genocide” does not really address the crisis.

I am not privy to what the speakers at the rally will say, but I assume that at some point someone will observe that a Congress and a White House that make as much of “family values” as do this Congress and this White House ought not be indifferent to the desolation of the family that has been going on in Darfur since early 2003, ought not boast that America uses the word “genocide” so long as it does not intervene to end the ongoing rape.

Intervention: The problem with intervention, aside from the fact that the United States and NATO are busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not really the availability of sufficient troops to bring the Janjaweed to heel. A small but lethal force could do that fairly easily. The problem is that Sudan is, may heaven help us, an ally in the war against terrorism. The war on terrorism, it turns out, makes very strange bedfellows. One ends up sleeping with accomplices to genocide.

Is this what happens when our president speaks to theirs? “Listen, I am going to be calling what is happening in your Darfur ‘genocide.’ I am sorry to have to do that, but unless I do, things here will boil over — you know, demonstrations and all that. So please understand and don’t be offended; I value your friendship, and am only doing this because I have to. Really, it’s nothing, doesn’t mean a thing.”

Or perhaps he really cares, our president. Perhaps he is moved, but trapped. There are awkward choices to be made in as complex a world as ours.

The folks who will leave their homes and their families to come to Washington to demonstrate for a more active American policy are also making choices, not so awkward but nonetheless not trivial. They are coming from near and far to defend people they never have met and likely never will.

They are coming to stand in for all of us who are too busy, too indolent or too lame to join them. And they are coming to stand in for the miserable refugees of Darfur, the lucky ones now scattered in camps in Sudan and across the border in Chad, the damned ones scrabbling for water to slake their thirst, a leaf to eat, and then dying.

So let us thank them, those who make the trip and refresh the oath. May the work of their hands, and of their feet, be blessed.

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