Jolted by the tepid response to the genocide in Darfur, Jewish communal organizations are mobilizing at an unprecedented level for an issue that might appear tangential to Jewish concerns.
National and local Jewish organizations are gearing up for a rally to be held April 30 in Washington under the aegis of the Save Darfur Coalition, which brings together more than 150 faith-based and human rights groups and in which Jewish organizations figure prominently.
Organizers also intend to deliver a million handwritten and electronic postcards to the White House at the time of the rally, demanding a more effective American response and American support for a stronger multinational force to protect civilians in the war-stricken region.
“Darfur hit a heartstring in the Jewish community,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The council is a body that coordinates 13 national and 122 local Jewish agencies on issues of social justice, among other concerns. “It shows that when we say ‘never again,’ we mean it…. It is one of those moments when everybody seems to be saying the same thing and we see an extraordinary force coming about.”
The Bush administration in 2004 applied the term “genocide” to the repressive actions conducted by the Sudanese government and its henchmen against the population of Darfur. The United Nations passed a series of resolutions, and the African Union introduced troops into the area. Even so, according to diplomats and
relief groups, the situation on the ground has worsened.
“This is the first time the United States has determined that a genocide was taking place while it is still happening, but at the same time, the administration has failed to act on it,” said Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service. The AJWS, a Peace Corps-like charity, has spearheaded advocacy efforts on Darfur for the past two years. “This is what gets the Jewish community moving. They know the price of silence during the Holocaust and Rwanda,” Messinger said.
While the 1994 genocide in Rwanda took place over several months and garnered little attention, the crisis in Darfur is now entering its third year and has grabbed the attention of politicians and pundits such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.
The organized Jewish community lobbied for Western intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s, but most activity occurred at the leadership level, and grass-roots involvement was minor, according to Jewish officials involved at the time.
Ronny Strongin, a spokeswoman for the AJWS, said that this time around, the call for more public action actually came from the grass roots.
“We were reluctant because it means a lot of resources and energy, but this is what people want; there’s an itching to march and demonstrate,” she said, adding that the AJWS had secured financing from a donor and hired a professional staff to prepare for the event.
Gutow of the JCPA said that the strong grass-roots involvement is impelling major Jewish groups to be even more vocal in lobbying the administration and Congress.
“What you see here is an attempt to bring more single voices from the community together with the big voices,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights, which has been pushing for stronger engagement on Darfur.
The AJCommittee has asked its local chapters to bring leaders of other faiths to Washington on February 15 to lobby Congress and the administration.
Some Jewish officials acknowledged privately that the idea of pressuring Sudan’s radical Islamic regime motivated some Jewish groups to join the action. They said, however, that the fact that Jews are mobilizing to end Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Darfur sends a positive message to the Muslim world.
Open warfare erupted in Darfur in early 2003 when two rebel groups attacked military installations in an effort to redress the region’s chronic economic and political marginalization. The international community has accused the government of responding to the rebels by dispatching militias known as janjaweed, composed of fighters of Arab descent, which attacked the civilian population. The militias embarked on a wave of indiscriminate killing, looting and mass rape, as well as massive displacement.
Since February 2003, according to international estimates, more than 400,000 men, women and children have died while another 2.5 million civilians have been forced into refugee camps in Sudan and in neighboring Chad.
Congress recently cut $50 million it had earmarked to support the military mission of the African Union in Darfur. Darfur advocates want lawmakers to reinstate the funding, and they are calling for dispatching U.N. peacekeepers to assist the A.U., which has been struggling to implement its monitoring role.
“It is absolutely essential that President Bush directs the State Department to introduce a Security Council resolution calling for the United Nations to assume control of the African Union mission in Sudan when the U.S. takes its turn as president of the Security Council for the month of February,” said David Rubenstein, coordinator of the Save Darfur Coalition. “While the African Union has been doing the best that it can with its limited funding and equipment, the U.N. would bring considerably greater resources to the task of protecting the civilians of Darfur.”