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Speaking Out on Darfur Cannot Wait for a More Convenient Time

Israel’s northern cities and towns need massive reconstruction aid to repair the widespread damage caused by a month of indiscriminate Hezbollah rocket attacks. Israelis whose lives were torn apart by the war are in need of financial and emotional assistance. And Jerusalem needs the political support of American Jews to ensure that Washington holds firm on insisting that Hezbollah is reined in, as required by the United Nations agreement that ended the fighting.

Without a doubt, Israel is, and should be, the main foreign-policy priority for American Jews. But we must seriously consider the cost of spending our time and resources solely on helping Israel.

What, in particular, of the genocide in Darfur? Must Jewish efforts on behalf of the victims of that tragedy be put on hold until Israel’s acute needs are met?

Recent actions of the Sudanese government lend new urgency to Darfur’s already desperate plight. Reports indicate that the government in Khartoum has stepped up its military offensive in Darfur and is attempting to keep a U.N. peacekeeping mission from deploying there.

Humanitarian aid workers are being murdered and are likely to pull out of Darfur altogether if U.N. peacekeepers are kept away. Hundreds of thousands of Darfurians have already died, and 2.5 million have been made refugees. Without additional international pressure on Khartoum, countless more civilians in Darfur will be murdered or driven from their villages by tyrannical Sudanese government forces.

American Jews are a capable and compassionate people. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. There should be room on our plate, as there is room in our hearts, for Israel and Darfur.

We are an immensely capable and energetic people. The record of Jewish achievement bears witness to the validity of this claim. Moreover, our tradition implores us to extend assistance to the non-Jew even as we do all that is required to support our ancient homeland. This concern for the other is a cornerstone of our ethical understandings.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” This is the wisdom of Hillel the Elder, the Second Temple period’s greatest sage. To act only out of narrow self-interest, he taught, diminishes the soul.

We obviously cannot stop any of our efforts on behalf of Israel — but neither can we watch genocide and stand idly by. It is not who or what Jews are.

Our history includes the Holocaust. Our history includes pogroms and persecutions. We must respond vigorously to the genocide of innocent civilians in Darfur when it is within our capability to help. We may have to work longer hours, but we will not watch this carnage in Africa without a response.

To speak out on behalf of Darfur takes nothing away from Jewish advocacy for Israel. In fact, when we need friends for Israel the most, how can we suggest that we will only stand for our cause? Why would the others we need so much stand with us if we care only for ourselves?

Saving Darfur is part of saving Israel. If we intend to count on friends, we need to also be a friend. The myriad non-Jews who are standing with us for Israel must realize that we will stand with them for causes that matter to them and to us. Working with others allows us to maintain critical connections and alliances with leaders from organizations representing American Christians, Muslims, secularists, African-Americans and others. We cannot work only on behalf of particularistic Jewish interests.

The Sudanese government’s recent rejection of international demands to end its genocidal ways has pushed Darfur to a point of no return. The timing may be unfortunate for American Jews, preoccupied as we are with Israel’s needs after the war with Hezbollah, but the timing is beyond our control.

We cannot wait. Action on behalf of Darfur is required now.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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