The 20,000 demonstrators who rallied in Washington last weekend to end the killing in Darfur might not have broken any attendance records, but they did create something more important: the beginnings of a new language and a new calculus in American foreign policy-making. No longer will it be possible for this nation’s leaders to say that suffering in remote places can be safely ignored because it has no domestic constituency. Sunday’s protest showed that there is such a constituency. And if the rally’s organizers are to be believed, this new movement is going to grow.
That sense of something new was reflected in the extensive press coverage that the rally received. Even if it wasn’t the biggest protest rally of the year — not even the biggest of the week — it seemed unprecedented in its ability to mobilize Americans by the thousands for a cause in which they had no direct stake beyond that of common humanity.
It’s no accident that Jewish organizations took the lead in mobilizing the rally. As organizers had pointed out for months beforehand, and as participants in the crowd readily acknowledged to reporters, Jews feel a special responsibility to speak out in the face of genocide. It was important, however, that the rally was not only a Jewish gathering. Critics had been whispering before the event that the Save Darfur movement was driven primarily by pro-Israel activists eager to embarrass the Arab government of Sudan. The diversity visible on the speakers’ podium last Sunday — Christian and Muslim clergy, black and Arab American leaders, and celebrity entertainers along with rabbis and Jewish communal figures — showed that to be a lie. Outrage over the continuing slaughter in Darfur runs across ethnic and religious lines.
The tragedy in Darfur has complex roots. It began as an armed rebellion by tribesmen in western Sudan demanding a greater say in their region, but the central government’s indiscriminate response to the rebellion has aroused international revulsion. Up until now, the world’s conscience has expressed itself mainly in grandstanding by world leaders, backed up by a toothless African Union peacekeeping force. Talks between the government and the rebels, held in Nigeria under African Union mediation, have dragged on endlessly. And as the world dithers, the government and its allies have continued their campaign of murder.
The appearance of a popular movement on the streets of America inevitably changes the equation. It’s not lost on the Sudanese government that the world’s superpower is losing patience with the slaughter. Indeed, on the very day that the rally took place in Washington, the talks in Nigeria produced a government agreement to accept a compromise peace plan. That’s not mere coincidence. There are many forces at play in a crisis as charged as Sudan; American public opinion is not the least of them.
If the rally is to have lasting meaning, however, it must represent the beginning and not the end of this new coalition of conscience. The Darfur crisis is not over, however hopeful the signs from Nigeria this week. And beyond Darfur, the continent of Africa bleeds. Fighting continues in Congo, where a conflict even deadlier than Darfur’s has raged for five years. Across much of the continent, poverty and disease take a daily toll worse than Darfur and Congo combined. During the past year, while child mortality declined in much of the world, it increased in 10 nations — eight of them in Africa, according to a new report by the World Bank. Millions every year die needless deaths — and preventable ones. They die because the rest of the world lacks the will to act.
No, these crises are not the same as Auschwitz. For that matter, neither is Darfur; nobody ever brokered peace talks between Nazi Germany and the Jews of Poland. But if we have learned anything in the past 60 years, it is that inhumanity degrades us all, and that silence is complicity.
To its credit, our community has begun to stir itself. In recent months, new Africa initiatives have been launched by the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress. The American Jewish World Service, which led last week’s Darfur effort, has been working on the continent for years. More efforts are in the works.
The lesson of the rally is that shouting is better than whispering. The tentative initiatives must become a national movement, building on the momentum of the Darfur protest. The 20,000 people who rallied last weekend must draw in thousands more. They are Africa’s best hope.