DES MOINES, Iowa — Dennis Ross, America’s point man on the peace process during the 1990s, came to Iowa last week to talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But his speech, made to 450 people at a local Conservative synagogue, took an unexpected turn when a tall man in traditional African garb approached the microphone during the question-and-answer session.
“Did you know that the war in Sudan and other parts of Africa has a relationship to the war in the Middle East?” said Goanar Chol, a pastor and a refugee from Sudan who now works with the Sudanese Presbyterian community in Des Moines and in Omaha, Neb.
“We in South Sudan have come to the conclusion that they are related,” Chol continued. “Christianity in South Sudan was blamed on the U.S. and Israel.”
Until that point, Ross had confidently stuck to his usual talking points, blaming the late Yasser Arafat for the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to close a peace deal at Camp David in 2000. But as Chol spoke of the crisis in Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, Ross’s expression changed.
The former American diplomat looked pained. The audience — which included at least a dozen Sudanese men — listened intently.
As Ross, now a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered his response, he left his microphone for one and only one time during the May 11 program and headed toward the middle of the stage.
“For too long, we didn’t see some of the connections,” Ross said. “It’s true that bin Laden went to Sudan, and how important bin Laden was, was underestimated.”
Ross added, “It’s unconscionable what happened in South Sudan, and now we have Darfur, which is unspeakable.”
A 20-year civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and Christian-animist south took some 2 million lives before ending in a peace accord last year. A separate conflict in the western province of Darfur has taken at least 70,000 lives and left close to 2 million homeless in the past two years as government-backed militias have terrorized black Muslim villagers.
“Africa is an area where too little attention has been given,” Ross told the audience. “We need to look at the gap between what’s been promised in aid and what’s been delivered. And the AIDS pandemic is a tragedy.”
“We have to do a whole lot more in Africa than we’ve been doing,” he told the crowd.
The mostly white audience included the state’s former four-term governor, Terry Branstad, and a large number of teachers.
According to Mark Finkelstein, of the Jewish Community Relations Commission of Greater Des Moines, about “100 teachers from a 50-mile radius” attended a workshop earlier in the day with Ross. “Many of the teachers stayed for the lecture.”
The teachers — who, as part of a 26-year-old program, participate in annual workshops on Jewish topics including Holocaust education, church-state relations, and Israel — came from other parts of the state, including the city of Ames and Boone County. The Teachers Institute of the JCRC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines shared the cost of the event.
There probably were more yarmulkes in the audience at Ross’s speech than in any other part of the state that night. But the event, held on the eve of Israeli Independence Day, also appeared to attract a large number of non-Jews, though estimates varied. “The audience was two-thirds Jewish and one-third not,” said 25-year Des Moines resident Michael Libbie, president of a local advertising firm. Some Jewish residents countered that “a majority of the people here are not Jewish.”
Tickets were $10. Ross, who said he was on a 48-city tour, referred several times to his August 2004 book, “The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.” He was still signing copies at 10 p.m., nearly an hour after the event concluded.
For the most part, in classic Iowa fashion, the audience asked pro-Israel questions as the crowd listening politely.
But at the reception afterward, some elderly attendees grumbled skeptically about Ross’s suggestion that America should “get the Arab oil states to provide funding for Palestinian housing projects.”
Most of the talk, though, focused on the Sudanese pastor’s remarks.
“The implication of the question was, ‘Why didn’t the U.S. do something long ago?’” Libbie said. “And I think Ross was uncomfortable with that, because it’s true.”