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The genocide in Darfur didn’t go away, but the Jewish community’s attention did 

‘Never Again’ has become never mind.

Monim Haroon said he had no words to explain what the people who live in the Darfur region of Sudan are going through right now, but he did have a story.

“A woman told me a group of soldiers came into her home and demanded to know where the men were,” Haroon, an aid worker with the international relief organization HIAS, told me via Zoom from the Farchana refugee camp in Chad. “She said the men were gone. He pointed to her 3-year-old son and said, ‘What about him?’ And they shot him in front of her.”

You may have thought that Darfur was a tragedy you could check as “solved” years ago. You thought wrong. Earlier this month, Raphael Marcus, chief program officer for HIAS, put it this way at a fundraiser for the international aid group in Beverly Hills: “When this is over, we will possibly find out we turned our backs on genocide.”  

Almost 15 years ago, Jewish groups understood that. Now, the community is paying almost no attention, and I have some uncomfortable ideas why that is.  

Fifteen years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 2008, rabbis across America delivered sermons about the crisis in Darfur as part of a concerted campaign organized by American Jewish World Service and the Reform movement. In Los Angeles, the late Harold Schulweis, a Conservative rabbi, founded Jewish World Watch to galvanize Jewish funds and activism on behalf of Darfur.

That came three years after hundreds of Jewish leaders and organizations from all denominations published a full-page ad, again, during the High Holidays, in The New York Times, calling on President George W. Bush to save Darfur’s refugees and end the violence there.

A 2005 ad in the New York Times signed by dozens of Jewish groups. Photo by New York Times

“As we approach the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, we call on you to take action to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan” the ad read. “Sixty years ago, after the Holocaust, the world vowed ‘Never Again.’ We cannot wait any longer to make good on our promises.”

Consider the state of “our promises” now. When the rabbis delivered their High Holiday sermons in 2008, the death toll in Darfur stood at 450,000 people, with 2.5 million displaced. Since the renewed violence in 2018, tens of thousands have been killed — aid workers fear the actual numbers are far higher — and there are 4.8 million refugees

At the peak of the last crisis, Israel opened its doors to 4,400 Darfuris. This week, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called for a plan to force all of the country’s 36,000 African refugees and asylum-seekers, including Darfuris, to leave, in many cases sending them back — against international law — to countries where their lives will be at risk. 

Despite these depressing developments, this High Holiday season is rolling around with no communal action, no exhortations from the pulpit, no full-page ads — crickets. 

There are several reasons for the comparative silence. This time around, the conflict is even messier and harder to understand. After the international outcry in the early 2000s, including passionate calls to action from George Clooney, Mia Farrow, Angelina Jolie and other celebrities, Sudan’s dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, reined in the militias he had set upon the Darfuris. 

In 2019, two generals overthrew al-Bashir in a coup, promising a return to civilian rule. Instead they have turned their forces against each other and the civilian population, redeploying the same genocidal militias from before.

“The victims are faceless,” Kholood Khair, an Oxford-educated Sudanese political analyst, told me in a telephone interview, “and some of the perpetrators are faceless too. It’s more difficult I think, to pass a narrative around.”

The fact that celebrities haven’t spoken out this time matters too, Khair said, because they were a “key factor” in raising international concern.

“They’ve sort of moved on, too,” Khair said.

They’re not the only ones. Ukraine, COVID-19, the Rohingya in Burma, the Uyghurs in China —  Darfuris have fallen victim to our psychic numbing.

“Confronted with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day,” the novelist Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, “what can a human heart do but slam its doors?”

The rise of Trumpism and domestic antisemitism have turned our focus inward, as well. We have become positively obsessed with us: antisemitism on the left, the right, on campus and online. We have leaned hard into the first part of Hillel’s dictum — “If I am not for myself who will be for me?”— and sloughed off the second — “If I am only for myself, who am I?”  

When we loudly proclaimed, “Never Again!”— on the holy pages of The New York Times — we might as well have added an asterisk with this phrase: until we have our own problems. 

But an ethical life, an ethical people, is measured by what you do when the doing is hard, and by that measure, we are failing.

 The sad irony is that Darfur proved that opening our hearts and wallets — and joining in solidarity for a cause beyond ourselves — can make a difference. Bowing to pressure, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions against the Sudanese government in 2005, recounts David Lanz in The Responsibility to Protect in Darfur, a book-length study of the intervention. It referred the situation to the International Criminal Court — a historical first — and a head of state, al-Bashir, was indicted, another first. The U.N. deployed the third largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in its history to the region.  When you will it, it happens.

Newly arrived refugees living in makeshift shelters at Adre refugee camp. Photo by Monim Haroon

Once the news and spotlight moved on, the internecine fights between the regions Arab and African ethnic groups — the vast majority of whom are both Muslim — continued, leading to vicious killings and a stream of refugees.

There are 400,000 newly arrived refugees at the Farchana camp in Chad where Haroon, the HIAS representative, works. They sleep 12 to a room in temporary U.N. housing. HIAS has, among other efforts, helped them establish permaculture gardens there to enable food self-sufficiency. The gardens are funded in part by Jewish World Watch, one of the few Jewish organizations still involved in Darfur. 

Near Farchana, another 150,000 refugees are waiting at the Adre and Arkoum transit camps, with no shelter and little food and water, as thousands continue to pour across the border.

“It is just going to be worse unless there will be international attention and support,” said Haroon. 

Haroon knows firsthand. He fled Darfur in 2001 as an 11-year-old, eventually making his way in 2012, by foot, into Israel, where he was imprisoned for three years as an infiltrator. Once released, Haroon attended Hebrew University and then began working for HIAS, just over the border from the country he fled. 

“Since I was a kid when the violence against us in Darfur broke out, the Jewish community was the only community in the world that stood with us,” said Haroon, who speaks fluent Hebrew and English. “And for me, as someone who grew up in a very antisemitic country, I couldn’t believe the Jews were the only one who spoke on our behalf. It’s important that the Jewish community continues supporting us today.”

Or, as the Jewish community used to say, “Never Again.”

Correction: The initial citation of the quote from Raphael Marcus omitted the word, “possibly.” It has been added according to notes from his remarks.


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