SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Tibet was on the minds and signs of most of the thousands of demonstrators who turned out to protest Chinese human rights abuses as the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco on its way to Beijing.
But for several hundred green-shirted activists, including several Jewish luminaries, it was an opportunity for the Save Darfur Coalition to speak out against China’s complicity in the ongoing mass killings in Sudan.
Among those in the crowd Wednesday with something to say about Darfur were novelist Michael Chabon and Ruth Messinger, the president of the New York-based American Jewish World Service.
“It’s extraordinary that all the groups that have concerns about the human rights policies of China are together in a city with a great tradition of protest to bring the message,” Messinger said. “You can’t have an Olympics in a country that violates human rights of people all over the world unless you tell that country to change its policies.”
Messinger said China is complicit in the ongoing slaughter because it is the biggest supplier of munitions to the Sudanese government and buys most of its imported oil from Sudan.
Agents of the Sudanese government are responsible for the death and displacement of millions of Darfuris, she said.
“China has become an enabler of this genocide,” Messinger added.
For four years, Messinger’s organization has supported multiple projects in Darfur and Chad, from health clinics to maternity labs to rape counselors.
With their banners and balloons the Darfur protesters – including about a dozen Darfuri refugees – made their way to Embarcadero Plaza, just north of Market Street, to join hundreds of chanting pro-Tibet protesters lining police barricades along the torch route.
Film actress Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”) stood with them. She became active in the Darfur movement because of her Holocaust education in college.
“I became obsessed with the idea of genocide and how people could let this happen,” she said. “I felt from then on we were all complicit in World War II, and now we’re complicit in genocide in Darfur by not speaking up. It’s my duty as a human being to do so.”
Rabbi Lee Bycel, the executive director of the Western region of AJWS, has been active in the Darfur movement for years and frequently travels to the region. He marked two of the past three Yom Kippur holidays in Chad refugee camps.
“I always tell people I meet there that I work with a Jewish organization, and everyone hugs me and says ‘we love the Jewish people,’ ” said Bycel, referring to the Muslims of north-central Africa. “People in a refugee camp see a white face, and then they know the world cares.”
Chabon, a Berkeley novelist, says he has long been an ardent admirer of both the Olympic Games and Chinese culture. But he couldn’t give China a pass on its abuses.
“As a Jew, I’m passionately committed to the principle that there shouldn’t be any more genocide,” Chabon said while waiting for the torch to pass his location. “As part of a people that experienced the worst genocide the world has ever seen, my sense of outrage [over Darfur] was immediate.”
Though the world has done little to stop the slaughter in Darfur, Chabon said China was uniquely complicit.
“In that region they are the world power,” he said. “They said they would put a stop to it. They publicly committed to ending the genocide, and it’s still going on. We need them to live up to their promises. They can stop it, and it wouldn’t be that hard.”