As They Gear Up for Darfur Rally, Groups Hope Jewish Interest High

As Darfur advocates prepare for "Save Darfur Day," American Jewish groups once again have positioned themselves at the center of the movement to save the war-torn African region from genocide — despite some concern that Israel’s recent war in Lebanon might have pulled some Jews away from the issue. Sudan’s Darfur region has deteriorated into civil war since February 2003, when rebel groups, upset that the oil-rich government had left the area in squalor, attacked Sudanese military institutions. The government allegedly enlisted militias known as Janjaweed to rout out disloyal groups, using a scorched-earth policy to destroy up to 90 percent of villages in the region and kill as many as 400,000 people, according to some estimates.

In April, the Save Darfur Coalition, a collaboration of 175 faith-based and humanitarian organizations initiated by the American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, drew 60,000 to 75,000 people to a rally in Washington aimed at bringing attention to the situation. Some 25,000 of those attending were Jews, according to Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service.

The Sept. 17 followup rally in New York City’s Central Park, which will feature Madeline Albright, a former U.S secretary of state; Larry Cox, director of Amnesty International USA; and musical performances by Big & Rich and O.A.R, among others, is meant to push the United Nations to deploy an international peacekeeping force to Darfur, in line with a resolution it passed two weeks ago, said Alex Meixner, the Save Darfur Coalition’s policy coordinator.

The U.N. force has yet to be deployed because the world body has not found nations willing to commit troops and because the Sudanese government is refusing to let them into the country, Meixner said.

"No U.N.-authorized peacekeeping force has ever failed to deploy," Meixner said. "If it lets Sudan — the villains of the peace — have a veto, it is a horrible precedent, and it says that the world is willing to pay lip service to the situation, but not to do the hard work."

Working with the AJWS, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities and the UJA-Federation of New York, the Save Darfur Coalition organized the New York rally as the centerpiece of Sunday’s "Save Darfur Day." Similar but smaller rallies will be held in some 30 cities in two dozen countries.

The question was whether Jews would turn out in the same numbers as they did in April.

Some organizers, such as Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of JCPA, said they initially had doubted the turnout because so much of the Jewish community’s energy had been diverted toward supporting an Israel at war, but those fears appeared to be unfounded.

"I don’t think that there has been any diminution of Jewish support for stopping the slaughter in Sudan," Gutow told JTA from Israel. "The community has shown that it has maintained in its gut two very important concerns and that it will do all that it can do."

Organizers of April’s Washington rally were able to estimate Jewish attendance by counting how many busloads of people came from Jewish organizations. Messinger told JTA she has no idea how many Jews will participate this time, but the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston is sending 10 buses to New York, and organizations such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Seminarians for Social Justice have arranged local programming.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is bringing more than 1,000 students from 30 campuses to the New York rally, said Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, the organization’s social justice department.

She, too said there had been fears that student interest in Darfur would have waned because of growing concern for Israel. But she said Hillel sees Darfur as a different way to get Jewish students involved in a Jewish cause.

"It’s a Jewish imperative that you shall pursue" justice, she said. Darfur "attracts students who might notbe interested in Israel or in coming to Friday night services, but who are interested in social justice. This has an appeal because they have a voice."

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