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Darfur: A Religious Imperative

We are bringing Reconstructionism to life here tonight as we open our week by demanding that the beauty we feel as free people be made available to a people in another part of the world who are literally living in Hell.

For Jews Passover has just ended. The holiday of our freedom from slavery is a time when we are supposed to bring all the slavery left in the world under the spotlight so that we can free those who still live under the bonds of such agony. Yom Hashoa was experienced this week. I spoke at an interfaith service in Montclair, New Jersey. There is something fitting that at this moment when these two great remembrances of the Jewish calendar come together we are going to honor them by demanding an end to the genocide in Darfur.

There is something pure, rock-solid, simple and unifying about our mission. We come to address a question for which there is no ambiguity---we come to remember the great injustice of the past and of the present so that we can make the world better.

We are here tonight to let the river of our religious fervor bring the Passover and the Shoah into this moment and help us respond as powerfully as possible to today’s genocide----a marauding destructive force in western Sudan. We are here to bear witness to what is happening in Darfur and, hopefully, to do every thing we can to stop it—to stop it now. The truth is we have the power to do exactly that. Our only question is “Do we have the will?”

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a talk by the gutsy New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. He spoke about one of his early forays into the Darfur region and the trees he encountered. His tale will make ‘tree-hugging’ take on a whole new meaning. The camp in which the refugees were sequestered was not much. The homes of the inhabitants seemed to be defined by trees. He mentioned three or four trees—he spoke of orphan children under one tree---people with wounds that defied our notions of horror under another---a story of dislocation of a family from their home village plagued with fear that they will never return under a third--- --He looked out into the horizon of the camp and he saw tree after tree after tree and under each tree a horrific story of human suffering. That is what we are facing right now in Darfur. Trees of suffering---

--WHAT HAS OCCURRED---Since the regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the National Islamic front took power in 1989 in Khartoum there have been constant rebellions in the various regions of the country—the most deadly was a rebellion that predated Bashir between the Islamic north and the mostly Christian-animist south. An agreement, in which the United States played a great role, has tentatively stopped that civil war and the focus is now on the rebels in the Islamic Darfur region just to the west and North of the regime’s center in Khartoum.

The Islamic government of Sudan has oppressed the Islamic tribes of Darfur for a long while---economic and political marginalization created what such marginalization creates—but the horror geometrically increased when the Darfuri rebels ambushed the Sudanese air force at one of its bases in 2003. Bashir and his henchmen responded to this humiliation by empowering and arming local militias to attack the Darfuri tribes. These militias, promised money and land by Bashir, are called the Janjaweed and they are Nomadic and destitute. Their name means ‘bandits’ and is formed by the word ‘jinn’ meaning ‘devil’ and ‘jawad’ meaning horse—Suddenly, the controversy went from a series of skirmishes to powerful genocide being supported by Khartoum.

The Darfuris became fodder for these militias and, although their meager tribal forces can respond on the battlefield only somewhat---the Janjaweed have been given sophisticated weapons and are backed by Sudanese airpower, the Darfuri villages are basically open ground. Somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people have been killed; almost all of the Darfuri villages have been destroyed, and two million people are living in crowded camps—barely protected at all. Rapes and murders are everyday occurrences.

One aid worker in Darfur told a story about two sisters of the Fur tribe that she had met---The two sisters were being forced to work in the fields by the Janjaweed and, more shockingly, were being raped by them. The father of the sisters screwed up his courage and asked the Janjaweed commander to let his daughters go---The Janjaweed commander responded right in front of the daughters by beheading their father---Imagine their fear---imagine the hopelessness of their lives --This story, replicated all over Darfur, should fill our own lives with a sense of mission –with purpose---If it does not, what are we saying about ourselves—about our notions of G-d and holiness

Right now the only security for these 2,000,000 displaced members of the human race are 7,000 African Union troops who fundamentally patrol the camps and do what they can to stop the genocide---They are not well-armed and at different times have been accused of also taking advantage and raping the Darfuris in the camps.

The once safe haven of Chad, the nation to the west of Sudan to which many Darfuris fled, is now under attack by Sudanese supported rebels and the world does very little. Kristof wrote a recent column about the inhabitants of a town in Chad called Koloy in which the people were simply waiting for Janjaweed militias to appear and slaughter them. The Janjaweed had sent word that they were going to destroy the town. The Chadian army had fled the town…and there was no one left to call on---according to Kristof who was there right at that time just a few weeks ago, the Janjaweed did not attack when they said they would---I do not know what has occurred since—I actually am not sure that there is much communication and I am not sure I want to know. There are peace talks going on that will not likely bring peace into fruition.


There is a hierarchy of solutions that must be sought. Spinoza said that ‘Peace is not only the absence of war—it is a state of mind.’ I do not think we can get to the ‘state of mind’ kind of peace but I do think that we can move towards the ‘absence of war’ kind of peace. The three qualities of peace that Darfuris can seek are: Security; Political; and last and, finally, cultural. At the moment we should just try to stop the carnage and seek security for these poor, tragically attacked folks. Whether they will eventually encounter both a political framework in which they can grow and prosper and, even more difficult to attain, a cultural universe where tribal hatreds give way to human love, are not in our hands. The Sudanese, the Darfuri, and factors way out of our limited power will have to step up to the plate.

What is clearly in our control, yours and mine, is the ability to do something to give the Darfuris a secure life in which they do not need to be fearful that their existence is threatened daily by marauding ‘devils-on-horseback.’ Remember, genocides are planned---they are not emotional outbursts. If we help our country lead the way in stopping this horror, we will stop it. We can foil Sudan’s plans.


This is one of those moments where we live in the only nation in the world that seems to truly care. The president said that there would be no genocide on his watch. Let us make sure he keeps looking at that second hand. In 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell called the situation in Darfur ‘genocide.’ No other country in the world is doing that. Yet, there seems to be schizophrenic responses from the United States, sometimes taking a strong hand and other times a far less pushy one; sometimes willing to use the word, ‘genocide’ and sometimes not being willing to do so. Two factors that seem to be in play in America’s wavering is Sudanese support of the war against terrorism and a concern that the peace between the North and South that stopped so much killing will come apart. There is concern that if the present peace talks fail, sending in more peace keepers will appear to be an invasion. None of these factors should stop us from pushing forward. This is genocide.

Both houses of Congress have passed funding in the Fiscal 2006 funding bill to support troops under the aegis of the African Union. The administration asked for $123 million and both houses approved $50 million dollars more. Still, the money must stay in the bill and the bill must pass. Both houses have passed versions of the Darfur peace and accountability act which calls for greater penalties for those in Sudan responsible for the atrocities and stronger U. S. involvement in the Darfur Peace process. Neither of these bills has reached final passage and we have work to do.


The president can call on the International community to ante up for supporting more AU troops in Darfur; the administration has begun to call for a United Nations sponsored peace keeping force in the region, literally re-hatting the AU forces and increasing their numbers. N.A.T.O. can be moved to offer cooperation in doing this. China and Russia so far have been pressured not to veto U.N. resolutions aimed at stopping the genocide. That pressure must be continued.

America could host an international summit. The president or Secretary Rice could go to Darfur or Chad. There could be a press conference a week or at least every month by high ranking officials announcing the rape and death toll. President Bush could appoint Bill Clinton and his father to serve as special envoys to the region to force a peace. We can do much more, much more! Don’t we wish that these things had been done in 1940?

Back in September I and a dozen others under the aegis of the Interfaith Save-Darfur Coalition met at the State Department with Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick. He said, and I believe him, We NEED YOU. He said that the support in the administration was widespread; that Bush truly wanted to stop this. He also made the case that U.S. foreign policy has a broad canvas with a lot of places and conflicts exerting pressure on the United States to do something in one arena and not in another. He literally said that the more we push (sort of a ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ version of how the government works,) the more the U.S. will do. So, I say: “Let’s help Bob Zoellick!!!” “Let’s move this government forward!!”


The rest of the world will do nothing unless we force the issue. The United Nations and the world will only move forward if we push them. They seem so silent and so murky and ambivalent. This country knows how to exert pressure. We do it well when we want to do so.

I am often asked why there has been an outpouring on this genocide when there has not been one in America on so many others. I was just asked on Friday by a reporter. Why were we so silent in Biafra and Cambodia and Bosnia and Rwanda?

Here is what I said. First, we just watched Rwanda and 900,000 people were slaughtered and we did nothing. We saw the French, not generally the world’s most impulsive people, stop the fighting by simply landing 8,000 troops. We have a government, a President and a Congress, that seem sympathetic on their bad days and downright engaged on their good days. We are in a world where there is so little that seems to unite us as a nation. We can actually stop a genocide. That is why we are doing this!

A few weeks ago I was in Florida at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Annual meeting. I received a press call from the radio station for the fundamentalist Christian organization, Reverend Dobson’s group, Focus on the Family, asking why I thought Americans should care; why should people send a million postcards to President Bush; why should they come to the Washington rally on April 30. I remember my joy at the question because I responded quite loudly---“Sir, America is about stopping injustice. Your question sounds like you are critiquing what we are doing. I know your listeners are with us. The post cards are to give the President the public support he wants and needs. The rally is to raise the consciousness of our country about the inexplicable deaths in Darfur by raging militias. You should be supporting this movement; I know the good listeners of your station hate the very idea of genocide. I am sure of that.” The man became almost ‘sheepish’ and said he was just being a reporter. I believe that all Americans are together on this.

The funny thing about that radio reporter is that he was at least doing what so many in the media have not done---he was spending time on the genocide in Darfur. Most of the networks have been pitiful and this pitiful performance is put in high relief by CBS which gave two minutes of coverage to Darfur last year and 36 minutes to the Michael Jackson trial. What we can we do to change that?

Our job is to stop this slaughter and G-d knows we can if we wish. In every city and every hamlet, we can shout to G-d from the roof tops. We can stop the killing.


Imagine the world deciding to stop this ordeal. Think of what it would mean if America took this up as its mission, convincing the countries of the earth to stop this carnage. Most would respond. Sudan and the Janjaweed would stop in their tracks. They would not take on the whole world.

As we bring in a new week, we can imagine a world in which those weeping in Africa take on a new way of being. Imagine those people under Kristof’s trees no longer suffering; they will be having picnic lunches, singing beautiful African music, and just smiling. People everywhere would look at the United States with a sense of admiration. We could show the world that we are a city upon a hill; that we stand for something remarkable. The world could be proud of itself and we could be proud of ourselves. The truth is that the ingredients are there to cook this stew of freedom.


Edmund Burke is credited with saying that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ In the time to come your children and your grandchildren will be reading about this time period and they will look at you and they will say---“My G-d, how did you stop that genocide---what did you do, Mom? What did you do Dad?” You will look them in the face and say right back to them, “Let me tell you what we did! We raised our voices. We met with our government. We got in cars and brought the whole family to Washington to rally against the killings. We sent in a million postcards. And we kept on going; we did not stop until we stopped it!. It took a lot of time and a lot of energy. Sometimes, you came with us and had to give up your Little League game. You got your whole school to have an assembly and write letters to Congress. The President went to Darfur. Every television station, radio station, and newspaper in the world raised their voices in protest. The world joined in. People in every capital lined their boulevards demanding that their countries do their part. The genocide finally stopped and the children of Darfur once again lived in peace. We did what it took and we changed the world.

There is a midrash or story that comes to mind. A Jew was praying to G-d and asking for help to alleviate the pain and suffering and killing in this world. G-d responded by saying: “I have sent someone. I have sent you.” See all of you tomorrow in doing what we can to stop this horror in our times.


Type: Speech

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