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Jewish activists on Darfur laud new U.S. policy

Ruth Messinger, left, joins other Darfur activists at the White House in an October 2009 meeting with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Pete Muller / Save Darfur Coalition / Creative Commons)

Ruth Messinger, left, joins other Darfur activists at the White House in an October 2009 meeting with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Pete Muller / Save Darfur Coalition / Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish activists concerned with Darfur are giving high marks to the new U.S. policy toward Sudan, but some are cautioning that the real test is how the strategy is implemented.

The policy announced Monday by the Obama administration includes incentives if the government of Sudan acts to improve the situation on the ground and advance peace, and increased pressure from the United States and the international community if Sudan does not.

“It’s a great first step forward,” said the president of the American Jewish World Service president, Ruth Messinger, whose organization has been a leading voice among Jewish groups in protesting the genocide in Darfur.

Messinger said, however, that the policy should not be “an end in itself.”

“We ought to see specific, concrete results” from the Sudanese government in the next few months, she said, or “we ought to see clear evidence of pressure or sanctions coming from every different place in the administration where they could come.”

The White House said its policy has three goals: an end to the conflict, human rights abuses and genocide in Darfur; the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan’s Muslim North and Christian South; and assurance that Sudan does not provide a safe haven for terrorists.

The new strategy comes after a debate in which the U.S. envoy to the region, J. Scott Gration, reportedly favored greater engagement with Sudanese leaders and others in the administration, especially the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, favored getting tougher on the Sudanese government. The policy appears to combine both approaches.

The balance between incentives and hard benchmarks is “exactly the right approach” to make clear to Sudanese leaders what they need to do, said the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein. "It sends a very clear message of continued United States attention and engagement, and exactly what is expected of them to improve the situation.”

Saperstein added that the focus on the 2005 agreement, which ended a 20-year civil war between Muslims in northern Sudan and Christians in southern Sudan that left 2 million dead and 4 million homeless, was crucial, as it clarifies that the United States is fully behind the referendum vote on secession by the South. The referendum is supposed to take place by the end of 2010.

Many believe that the conflict between North and South paved the way for the six-year campaign of rape, expulsion and murder against the residents of Darfur by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. Hundreds of thousands have died and more than 2.5 million have fled their homes to live in refugee camps in the region or in the neighboring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic.

“I’m pleased they’re taking the comprehensive approach,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said of the Obama administration. The debate in the administration helped make clear that the administration can’t provide “too many carrots and not enough toughness” to the Sudanese, he said.

Other advocates, while glad to see the White House lay out a clear policy, were anxious to see a change in Darfur, where the genocide is believed to have declined in intensity but still continues.

“It’s great in theory,” said Sara Caine Kornfeld, department chair of tikkun olam at the Herzl/RMHA Upper School in Denver and founder of "Change the world. It just takes cents,"TM, an international movement of high school students concerned with Darfur.

“We’re waiting to see how it’s implemented,” she said. “We need to see a lot more action.”

Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch, a coalition of more than 60 California synagogues against genocide and other human rights abuses, expressed similar sentiment.

“We’ve heard policies, seen written statements, but at the end of the day,” she said, the key is “whether there’s actual change on the ground. We’re seeing a unified clear policy, but we need to be very cautious, and we need to hold the administration’s feet to the fire."

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