[URJBiennial] Madeline Albright
[URJBiennial] Voting

[URJBiennial] The Crisis in Darfur

I was late to my first morning workshop because I was in the exhibit hall buying a whole set of JPS Torah and Bible Commentaries, all nine beautiful hardbound volumes, on my rabbi's strong recommendation. (I got a great deal on them, though this credit card bill is going to pain me when it arrives...) Anyway, I slipped in the back door of the panel I'd wanted to attend, already in session:

The Crisis in Darfur

"It is clear that we need to raise a holy ruckus." When I entered, Rabbi Richard Jacobs was showing slides from a humanitarian visit to the Sudanese refugee camps in Chad, and was talking about why the United States hasn't taken action: "Because the phones aren't ringing." He asserted that China is buying Sudanese oil and is therefore in bed with the Sudanese government, and that the UN is therefore a difficult group to convince to take action on this.

"Al chet, for the sin we've committed before You, of indifference -- every time we pray for forgiveness, for repentance, we should be considering our failure to take action on this....How are we going to answer our grandchildren? How will we answer the question,'Grandpa, what did you know about the situation in Darfur? What did you do?' I am kept awake at night worrying about having to tell my grandchildren, 'I was very busy. And the situation was very complicated. So I didn't do anything.'"

"Friends, we have a long history of suffering, we have a moral conviction that we must do something. We have to use everything in our resources to stop the genocide in Darfur, to bring relief to the refugees, and to make sure that sukkat shalom is our goal and our hope."

Barbara Weinstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism talked about two levels of activism: the sandwich-making level (e.g. fighting hunger by making sandwiches in a local food bank) and the advocacy level (e.g. fighting hunger by agitating for legislation and doing advocacy that will change the world).

Sandwich-making activism:

  • Donate funds. To American Jewish World Service, or to the URJ (here). The URJ has established a relief fund that to date has allocated over $200,000 to various relief organizations.

  • Awareness-raising tactics: green ribbons, wristbands, "Call to Your Conscience" banners to hang on buildings (get them from SaveDarfur.org).

  • Get a speaker to your shul: aid workers, people who've been on humanitarian missions. Get your rabbi to give a sermon on Darfur. Organize a screening of a Human Rights Watch video on Darfur, or of the movie Hotel Rwanda followed by a discussion of the similarities and differences between the two genocides.

Some congregational stories were told about how these "sandwich-making" techniques can make a difference. For instance, Har Hashem in Boulder, where Rabbi Deborah Bronstein gave a powerful sermon on this issue and several congregants launched a grassroots campaign. With the help of a grant, the congregation started doing advocacy and awareness-raising work; a significant portion of its budget will be used to bring several Sudanese refugees out of the refugee camps in Chad. In 2006, ten Sudanese women from the refugee camps will arrive and be settled in Boulder with the help of the community.

Advocacy activism:

  • Work with synagogues, churches, mosques on this issue. Organize community interfaith vigils and advocacy efforts.

  • Lobby and call Congress. In July, 2004, our government asserted that yes, genocide is happening in Sudan. And it's more than a year later, and what have we done? 50 million dollars were cut from a bill, dollars which would have gone to fund the African Union and help them deal with this situation. Clearly there's a diminishing of passion on this issue in Congress, and we need to lobby and email and call.

  • Lobby for the passing of the major legislation on this issue that's currently on the slate, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (HR 3127/S. 1462). The act calls for the US to provide more assistance to the international criminal court for prosecuting those involved with the genocide, more support for the AU, and sending a presidential envoy to look into it. We can support this by sending letters, making calls, writing op-eds and editorials for our papers, organizing letter-writing days at our congregations.

  • The DarfurCalls.org project: call President Bush at 202-456-1111 and "ask him to assert U.S. leadership to create security in Darfur through an international peacekeeping force, with the expandted mandate and ability to protect all civilians, and to deploy that force in support of existing African Union efforts in Darfur." (That text comes from a little card labeled Not On My Watch!, which urges us to commit to calling the presdent twice each week.)

Rabbi Richard Jacobs pointed out that the people he saw in Chad were the lucky ones, the ones who made it to the refugee camps. "Genocide will not be stopped by a few people reaching refugee camps. Genocide will not be stopped by making a donation to the AJWS, which I hope we will all do! ...We need to be careful not to stay in the comfortable place of making sandwiches, when so many lives are on the line. We need to move from social action mode to social justice mode."

Rabbi David Stern talked about visiting Sudanese refugees in Chad. There are Sudanese refugees in northern Chad, and refugees from the Central African Republic in southern Chad. The world is paying (some) attention to the Darfur situation, though not to the CAR situation. So the midwives in the Sudanese refugee camps get medical training, and the infant mortality rate there is 0.1%; the midwives in the CAR ones don't get training, UNICEF isn't there, and so on, and the infant mortality rate in those camps is 7%. "That's evidence that paying attention makes a difference by a factor of seventy. Even what little attention we're paying to Darfur means that people are paying attention to those refugees, and that's saving lives on the ground. We can't let ourselves off that hook."

Someone asked about divestment. Rabbi Jacobs noted that the economic pressure point is critical; that Sudan is developing its oilfields and there's economic incentive for people to ignore human rights and genocide.

There was some talk about how the green bracelets aren't just there to be shiny; they're meant to be daily reminders. (Like tefillin, in a certain way.) We need to put something in front of us so we can't allow ourselves to forget what's happening and our responsibility to take action.

We ended with a look at SaveDarfur.org, a clearinghouse for information and advocacy around these issues. Rabbi Stern said, "Genocide is not exclusively shooing people into open pits, it's not exclusively crematoria....If someone is expelled from their village, now you've seen pictures of where they end up. Think about the phrase, 'genocide by starvation.' They don't have to move far from the villages to be in a situation that will kill them, either because of their exposure to the marauders or because of exposure to the elements without food and water."

"Think again about that middle upper-arm circumference measure. If the aid workers are out in the rows of tents in the camps, and they measure kids' arms, and the circumference falls below that certain measure, then that kid is in trouble. Allow me to suggest that if the circumference of our moral concern is too narrow, that kid is in even worse trouble... We need to consider not only what we'll say to our grandchildren, but how we'll face ourselves in the mirror tomorrow."

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