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Jewish Groups Find Going Tough As They Work to Pressure Sudan

March 7, 2005
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The Jewish community is facing resistance as it attempts to intensify pressure on the Sudanese government to ease the violence that has killed tens of thousands. Several Jewish community activists said they were not finding much interest in the issue when they tried to partner with African-American or church groups.

Instead, U.S. Jewish groups have turned to international organizations such as the United Nations, European Union and African Union to halt the killings and help those who have fled the fighting in the African nation and flocked to refugee camps.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said he led a coalition that met with ambassadors of African Union countries, asking them to increase the number of troops in Sudan and to protect innocents as well as humanitarian workers.

Saperstein said some progress has been made in expanding the African Union’s mission to include protecting innocents.

John Prendergast, special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group, a nonpofit agency, said there has not been one U.N. or other international punitive measure levied against Sudan in 23 months.

“The message is as clear as it can come,” he told JCPA and Hillel delegates Feb. 27. “You can kill as many people as you want. There will be no repercussions.”

The government has exploited ethnic tensions, sponsoring Arab militias that have killed tens of thousands of Africans in Sudan. Experts estimate that more than 1 million people have fled the violence and most are now in refugee camps in neighboring Chad.

But Saperstein told JTA it has become more difficult to press for sanctions for Sudan, because of concerns that this might disrupt a separate shaky peace deal that has emerged in and ended violence between Muslims in the north and Christians and animists in the south.

“How do you balance compromises made to end the war without tying your hands to difficulties in other parts of the country?” he asked.

The issue played a large role in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ plenum last week in Washington, capturing the support of Jewish community relations councils. It was also discussed by students who were attending the Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer B’nai B’rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy at the same time.

“This is genocide,” said Martin Raffel, JCPA associate executive director for international concerns. “If there’s a genocide happening, how can this not be at the top of our agenda?”

JCPA passed a resolution denouncing the genocide, and questioned Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the issue.

It also pressed the United Nations to condemn the genocide.

“I wouldn’t yet give up on the United Nations,” Clinton said March 1. “I would like to argue and shame them into taking action in Darfur.”

Scores of convention-goers sported green bracelets to acknowledge the genocide. One was even presented to McConnell.

Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, said the Jewish community has a unique role to play in advocating for more action.

“There is a certain moral force the Jewish community has addressing issues of genocide,” she said. “It shouldn’t be allowed not to speak from the heart just because this has become an issue for the European Union or African Union.”

The JCPA’s resolution calls for targeted sanctions to be imposed on the Sudanese government and its business interests as a means of pressuring the government to end the genocide.

Raffel joined a delegation who met with John Underriner, project management coordinator in the Sudan Programs Project at the State Department, and gave him a petition signed by nearly 1,000 JCPA and Hillel conference participants.

Raffel said Underriner suggested the Bush administration has seen a rise in public concern about the crisis there, and said it is of great importance to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The JCPA also passed several other resolutions on foreign policy issues.

Language that backed $350 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinians was added to a bill expressing support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The measure was approved unanimously.

The plenum also approved a resolution expressing concern over Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and urged the United States and international community to use “appropriate means” to combat the threat. Original language that suggested military intervention as an option was deleted.

The Reform movement is expected to broach the topic on March 13, when it opens its biannual Consultation on Conscience.

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