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Divest from Sudan

BOSTON (JTA) — Over the last three years the American Jewish community has played a key role in the grassroots movement to end the genocide in Darfur. National organizations such as the American Jewish World Service, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have helped lead the Save Darfur Coalition, and synagogues and religious schools across the country have rallied, written letters and raised funds to help the people of western Sudan.Despite our efforts, and the efforts of other communities of conscience, the situation in Darfur and neighboring Chad continues to deteriorate. The genocidal government of Sudan persists in its ruthless campaign of murder, rape and torture, claiming that reports of atrocities are the fabrications of Western colonialists — Americans, Zionists or both. While President Bush and other world leaders have made attempts to stem the tide of violence in Darfur, their efforts have been inconsistent at best. With more than 400,000 Darfuris dead and 2.5 million more living in refugee camps, we must intensify our protest. One significant action available to us is targeted divestment from companies helping fund the genocide. While U.S. sanctions prevent American companies from doing business in Sudan, many groups and individuals invest in foreign corporations operating in the region. Targeted divestment focuses on the worst offending companies — those that contribute large sums of money to the Sudanese government, provide minimal benefit to or actually harm the country’s underprivileged, and have expressed no significant governance policy regarding the genocide in Darfur. This strategy excludes the vast majority of companies in Sudan, including those involved in the provision of goods and services intended to promote health, welfare and education. Six states, including California, have removed their pension funds from a dozen or so companies doing business with Khartoum. Twenty-four others are considering similar legislation. More than 30 universities and colleges across the country have divested from these same corporations.There is a new campaign under way,, to persuade the mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments to remove its holdings from PetroChina Co. and Sinopec Corp. These two unscrupulous oil companies continue to support the Sudanese government while turning a blind eye to the crisis in Darfur. Human Rights Watch reports that more than 70 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues go to purchasing weapons, and training and supporting the Janjaweed, the government’s barbaric proxy militia. The government of Sudan has been responsive to economic pressure in the past. A successful divestment campaign against Talisman Energy of Canada helped compel President Bashir and his administration to negotiate with southern rebels — negotiations that ultimately resulted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. The current divestment movement has again captured Khartoum’s attention. In March 2006, the Sudanese government took out a six-page advertisement in The New York Times extolling the virtues of investment in Sudan. In addition, the Sudanese Embassy has issued several public statements urging against divestment, claiming that Sudan was entering “a new era of peace, unity and development.” Divestment is a thorny subject in the Jewish community because of attempts by various groups to divest from Israel. But we cannot allow our discomfort to stop us from acting on behalf of the people of Darfur. We must be nuanced in our assessment of and response to social and political crises around the globe.Frankly, divestment in most cases is an inappropriate and ineffective measure. But as journalist Nicholas Kristof recently stated, “Sudan is an exception, a rare instance where narrowly focused divestment makes practical as well as moral sense.”It is for this reason that AJWS recently added targeted divestment to its list of suggested Darfur action steps; JCPA and the Reform Movement are now considering the matter. The American Jewish community has taken up the cause of Darfur with great passion and dedication. Targeted divestment provides us with an opportunity to build upon our efforts and express with greater force our condemnation of the vicious actions of the Sudanese government.We each have a responsibility to investigate how our money is being used and to demand of our elected representatives and financial advisers that they divest from genocide. While divestment is by no means the only measure necessary to end the bloodshed in Darfur, it is an appropriate and effective instrument of protest. (Rabbi Or N. Rose is associate dean at The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and a member of the MA Coalition to Save Darfur.)