NEW YORK, Sept. 18 (JTA) — The Jewish presence was again large, as an estimated 30,000 demonstrators gathered in Central Park here on Sunday calling on the international community to help end the crisis in Darfur. “All the sides in the Darfur conflict are predominantly Muslim. But this is not about politics, this is about people,” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the crowd.
“We need to tell the United Nations that this is what it is here for. And President Bush has to make it clear to the United Nations that the United Nations has to get in there.”
Albright was among 30 speakers issuing similar statements at the park on Save Darfur Day, when protests took place in more than 80 cities around the world — including in Cairo and Jerusalem and Khartoum, Sudan.
The rallies were aimed at persuading the United Nations to deploy to the Sudan the peacekeeping forces it promised this summer.
An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in the western region of the Sudan since 2003, when the Sudanese government enlisted Janjaweed militias to rout out government dissenters. The situation has turned into a tribal war between Arab and African Muslims in which some 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes.
In August, the United Nations authorized the deployment to the region of 22,600 peacekeeping troops, but they have not yet been sent to Sudan because of an inability to recruit the soldiers from U.N. nations — and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s reluctance to allow them into his country.
The New York protest, organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, a 2-year-old coalition of more than 170 faith-based and social action organizations, was heavily attended by Jews, much like an April protest in Washington that drew between 60,000 and 75,000 people.
In Washington, some 20 percent were Jewish, according to some estimates.
Among a sea of New York protesters wearing blue hats and berets — which organizers suggested people wear to symbolize the blue helmets worn by U.N. peacekeepers — were many Jews wearing yarmulkes.
Jewish groups from all over the country came to hear speakers such as Albright; the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Rabbi Steve Gutow; the director of the National Council of Churches, Tony Kireopoulos; and actress Mira Sorvino.
Some came to the protest — which also featured musical performances by Suzanne Vega, O.A.R and others — as the leaders of Jewish groups.
Arieh Lebowitz, the communications director of the Jewish Labor Committee, an organization that acts as a liaison between the Jewish community and organized labor, brought a handful of people to the rally. The committee, which was founded in 1934 in response to the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, has historically taken up social action causes that are both Jewish and non-Jewish because it sees the Jewish cause and the human cause as the same.
“I don´t think this is a Jewish issue. It is a human issue,” Lebowitz said of the situation in Darfur. “Just as when the Nazis came to power, it was not a Jewish issue. It was a human issue.”
Others came under the auspices of Jewish groups.
Shula and Rachel Smith, sisters from Philadelphia who are 14 and 19, respectively, came as members of Habonim Dror, a labor Zionist youth movement.
“It seems like a lot of kids just don’t care about what is happening in Darfur because it doesn’t affect them,” Rachel said. That disaffection applies to everyone, she said, not just kids.
“But there are so many Jewish groups here, it’s awesome,” Shula added.
Some non-Jews hitched rides with Jewish groups.
Kaitlin Tufts and Nicole LaHausse are students at Colgate University who traveled four hours from upstate New York to the rally on a bus chaperoned by Rabbi David Levy, the Jewish chaplain at Colgate.
The group of 55 students from the university’s interfaith community — 12 of whom were Jewish, according to Levy — were accompanied on their trip by a Sudanese refugee who found out about the protest because he worked in the silkscreen shop that made the T-shirts the group had printed for the rally.
“In the Jewish community, we should be playing up the need to help,” said Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service, which co-founded the Save Darfur Coalition along with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We learned from the Holocaust about what happens when people are not willing to stand up for you. Now we are willing to stand up for people who are victims.”
Messinger, who was not at the event for personal reasons, but was checking in with organizers, said she is proud that the Jewish community has taken up the Darfur cause, especially since it is one that involves mostly Muslim victims and aggressors — a fact that she acknowledges is often downplayed.
But while Jews were well represented at the rally, some wondered about the relatively small turnout of another group that would seemingly have a natural connection with the plight of those suffering in Darfur — African Americans.
Though several black churches brought groups to the event, Albert Nzamukwereka was disappointed that there was not a heavier black turnout.
Nzamukwereka, a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which members of the Hutu tribe killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutu, is the director of peace-building efforts for Never Again International. With his organization, he and other native Africans regularly speak at schools — including Jewish schools here and in Europe – teaching children about what happened in Rwanda and what is happening in Darfur.
He said he has some optimism about the situation in Darfur because, while most people did not know about what was going on in Rwanda, many of the students with whom he speaks seem to have a general understanding that something bad is happening in the Sudan.
Flanked by three Africans who are members of his speaking bureau and by the executive director of another speaking bureau, Voices of Rwanda, Taylor Krauss, who recently traveled to Darfur with the World Jewish Congress, Nzamukwereka told JTA that he was impressed by the Jewish turnout and by the efforts of Jews involved in the movement to save Darfur.
But he wondered, “Why is it that the African American community is less represented here? Is it because they are not aware of it or they don’t want to be a part of it?” he asked. “They should be a part of this.”