Team effort strengthens Darfur cause
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Team effort strengthens Darfur cause

A Sudanese mother and child, refugees from Darfur, are welcomed by Sigal Rozen at the Hotline for Migrant Workers office in Tel Aviv.  (Brian Hendler)

A Sudanese mother and child, refugees from Darfur, are welcomed by Sigal Rozen at the Hotline for Migrant Workers office in Tel Aviv.
(Brian Hendler)

KIBBUTZ KETURA, Israel (JTA) Michael Bavli, a former Israeli ambassador, was pulled out of retirement by the United Nations eight years ago to establish an asylum system in Israel with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the relief arm of American Jewry.Bavli, 71, now serves as the point man in Israel for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.He is one of several Israelis official and unofficial playing a key role in determining the fate of the some 300 Sudanese refugees in Israel today.Bavli often is also the first address for a host of American Jewish organizations that have expressed concern about Israeli policy on the refugees.”I welcome it,” he said of the American Jewish involvement. “We all want Israel to do the right thing.Indeed, the Darfur issue has brought Israeli and American Jewish groups together in an unusual way.”American Jewish organizations and individuals, along with key NGOs and individuals in Israel, have mobilized on a common issue that is not parochial,” said Rabbi Ed Rettig, associate director and coordinator of relief activities of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee , which donated warm winter clothing to dozens of Sudanese prisoners being held in the open-air Ketziot prison.The head of his office, Eran Lerman, sent letters to all government ministers and to the Prime Minister’s Office.”There isn’t a synagogue in the United States where Darfur is not an issue,” he told JTA. “You can’t imprison refugees from Darfur in the Jewish state and not expect American Jewry to be upset.”Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, is credited with putting Darfur on the agenda both of the Jewish organizational world and mainstream America.AJWS was pivotal in organizing the Save Darfur Coalition’s two rallies – one outside the United Nations headquarters last September and one in Washington last April.Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was the keynote speaker opening the Washington rally, which attracted about 75,000 participants, approximately half from the Jewish community.Some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced as a result of the genocide. “The American Jewish community has been and continues to be not only tremendously concerned about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan, but also hugely active in protesting the deteriorating situation in that region,” Messinger said.She said national organizations and religious denominations, many congregations and Hillels, and tens of thousands of individuals have been writing letters, attending rallies, calling elected officials and organizing in their communities trying to pressure the United States and the United Nations to ensure that a robust U.N. peacekeeping force be employed to stop the killing.Messinger said there has been concern among some American Jews about the situation of the Sudanese imprisoned in Israel. She has been in regular contact with Israeli officials in New York “urging rapid action by the government to free these individuals and guarantee that they will not be returned to Sudan.”Messinger and other Jewish officials have also continued to raise the issue with other high-level Israeli officials.It was the American Jewish attention on the Darfur issue that inspired Eytan Schwartz, the winner of Israel’s first “Ambassador” reality televison show, to become involved.Schwartz, 32, American born and Israeli educated, was sent to the United States two years ago to work with college students and Jewish organizations to help them advocate for Israel. But instead of being confronted with political issues, he said, “Everywhere I went, it was Darfur, Darfur, Darfur. I knew there was a genocide in Darfur, but was not aware of the magnitude of the American Jewish response.”When Schwartz returned to Israel, he called Sigal Rozen at the Hotline for Migrant Workers and volunteered to make weekly visits to Sudanese refugees in prison.Schwartz now serves as the spokesman for CARD, the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur [], a coalition of 10 nongovernmental organizations working on behalf of the Sudanese refugees in Israel.CARD’s chair is Yehudah Bauer, a distinguished Holocaust scholar who addressed the U.N. General Assembly last year to mark the first U.N. Remembrance Commemoration of the Holocaust.”In terms of security, it is our position that a short detention of any illegal incomer is legitimate, as long as its purpose is a speedy security check,” Schwartz said. “However, once the security authorities are satisfied with the results of the interrogation and determine that the incomer is indeed an innocent refugee, the detainee should be released from detention.”I love my country, and I see my country not doing the right thing,” he said.The actions on Sudanese refugees in Israel “reflects a new model of Israel-Diaspora partnership,” agrees Larry Garber, executive director of the Washington-based New Israel Fund.Garber said that last spring, after the rally in Washington, he asked his counterpart in Israel, Eliezer Ya’ari, whether concern about the Darfur genocide resonated at all in Israel.Until that point, Garber said, “the issue had not much entered the public consciousness.” But then Israelis discovered that the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a longtime NIF grantee, was assisting refugees from Darfur who had found their way to Israel.The hotline “wanted assistance in publicizing the plight of their clients, most of whom were being kept in detention centers under terrible conditions,” Garber said. “With NIF assistance, primarily through discussions with key media contacts and behind-the-scenes conversations with government officials, the topic quickly became front-page news in Israel.”Ultimately, he said, the more egregious aspects of government policy toward Sudanese refugees were changed, and many were released from the detention centers, although their asylum petitions were not necessarily granted.”The depth of concern about the Darfur genocide among American Jewish organizations influenced Israeli officials to modify their posture of seeming indifference to the situation in Sudan and their treatment of the Sudanese refugees residing in Israel,” he said. Anat Ben Dor, the Israeli lawyer who has filed suit in Israel on behalf of the imprisoned refugees, said the involvement of American Jewry in the issue “could be the deciding factor in winning the release of the prisoners.””The Israeli government has a lot on its plate right now and it can’t afford to jeopardize the support of American Jewry, who are very clear about where they stand on Darfur,” Ben Dor said.