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After Experience of Holocaust, Jewish Groups out Front on Darfur

March 14, 2006
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One genocide nearly annihilated the Jewish people. Another has made them into leading voices in the struggle against human cruelty. The ongoing atrocities in Sudan, which have killed an estimated 300,000 black Muslims and left millions more homeless, have galvanized a community that knows the lessons of persecution all too well.

“We know what it means to be victims of those who want to wipe another people off the face of the earth,” Rabbi Robert Levine, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told roughly 150 rabbis Monday afternoon at a Darfur rally in New York City. “It was only two generations ago when we looked around and wondered, where was everyone?”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, a representative of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, picked up the theme.

“The safe havens for the Darfur refugees are beginning to look more and more like the Warsaw ghetto,” Jacobs said, speaking in front of a Holocaust memorial around the corner from the United Nations. “If history is any indication, then the African murderers have nothing to fear.”

But as the past few months have demonstrated, the Jewish community, at least, refuses to stand idly by. As activists across the country prepare for an April 30 Save Darfur rally in Washington, the call has become even more pronounced, prompting increased Jewish involvement and mobilization.

Much of the effort centers around the Save Darfur Coalition, a collection of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian aid organizations, which was initiated in 2004 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service.

The AJWS and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils across the nation, are responsible for anchoring the Jewish response to the Darfur crisis.

They’re coordinating Jewish efforts in the “Million Voices for Darfur” campaign, an effort launched by Save Darfur to collect 1 million handwritten and electronic postcards calling on President Bush to support a stronger, multinational effort to protect Darfur residents.

The letters will be delivered to the White House on April 30, the day of the rally near the U.S. Capitol. Intense efforts are under way throughout the country to galvanize Jews for the rally, according to several activists.

Even before the protest, however, the Jewish community had rallied around Darfur.

Last month, Darfur topped the national Jewish agenda at an annual JCPA plenum, which sets national priorities for local community relations councils. This coveted spot is usually reserved for things like Israel, poverty or social service issues.

“The plenum made Darfur a national priority for the Jewish community,” said Marlene Gorin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Dallas and the Dallas Jewish Coalition to Save Darfur.

The topic also took center stage last month at a Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston meeting, when Nancy Kaufman, the organization’s director, chaired a strategy meeting on Darfur of 40 JCRC directors.

On Sunday, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York devoted a day to the Sudanese crisis, bringing together Jewish and non-Jewish groups to discuss strategies to stop the genocide and bring relief to survivors. The afternoon lineup included a speech by a former Marine captain who previously served as the U.S. representative to the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Sudan.

Some note that the Jewish community’s coordinated response has not been replicated by other religious movements.

Rev. Dr. Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal Priest and director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., acknowledged that Darfur doesn’t top many church agendas.

“I think the resources of compassion are still there,” he said, but most Christians believe the only solution in Darfur would involve the military.

“The fatigue is, in my view, that we are spent where it concerns military intervention,” he said. “Our will for that kind of action has been exhausted.”

The road to Jewish involvement also has not been without stumbling blocks.

At the JCPA Washington conference, David Rubenstein, the Save Darfur coordinator, hinted at colliding agendas.

“Politically, it has been a real challenge to take other resources away without Americans expressing a commitment to the safety and security of people who are culturally and geographically so distant,” he said.

Les Bronstein, a Reconstructionist rabbi at Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, N.Y., said galvanizing support has posed a struggle at the local level.

“I’m going to plead with my congregation not to be so insular,” he said. “Not to worry so much about raising the building fund and the governance of the organization.”

“But it’s really hard,” he added. “There’s so many demands on the congregation.”

Slowly but surely, Jewish lobbying efforts are yielding results.

The White House has labeled the killings a genocide, and Bush won plaudits from Jewish Darfur activists last month for requesting $514 million as part of an emergency supplemental funding package. He also called for a substantial increase in the number of international troops in the region and an expansion of NATO’s presence.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA’s executive director, extolled the administration for “taking the lead” over all other nations on Darfur, even while the United States is bogged down with Iraq and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

“We tend to love to criticize in this country,” he said. “But this is a time for applause, especially in the last couple of weeks.”

Others were less lavish in their praise of the president. AJWS President Ruth Messinger said the Bush administration went from “assiduously not talking about Darfur” to “saying that things needed to be done.”

While welcoming the president’s efforts as a “first step,” she cautioned that his overtures smack of the “words, not action” approach she says she has seen in the past.

“Our united and decisive action will be the measure of us and will form the moral legacy we leave our children,” Messinger told the audience in a featured speech at the JCPA plenum. “At some point in our futures, those children or their children will ask what we did to stop the first genocide of the 21st century. Let’s be sure we have an answer.”

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