Children in Darfur. Photo: Reuters.
The images from Sudan are horrific: wounded, starving, diseased adults; skeletal, dying infants. Some people have referred to this as "ethnic cleansing," and the U.S. called it "genocide." Since 2003, an estimated 400,000 Africans have been massacred by the state-sanctioned Janjaweed ("men on horses"), many of them through savage torture. Many men had their eyes poked out. Countless women were raped, and if they refused, their arms and legs were broken. Children were mutilated while others perished from famine and disease. Two million people have been displaced from their homes and villages.
As youngsters, many of us could not fathom how the world remained silent as six million Jews were taken to their deaths. How was it that even among many Jews apathy prevailed? How, we wondered, could anybody go to sleep at night knowing that tomorrow another 12,000 Jews (as was the number in 1944) would be gassed?
But human nature knows all too cruelly how to detach. One of the tragic ironies of life: As many of us get ready to enjoy a serene weekend, in Darfur others will brace for rape, torture and death.
And the world remains silent.
Eli Wiesel once remarked that the lesson of the Holocaust was that "you could get away with it." Was he incorrect? Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia and now Sudan demonstrate that at times it seems futile to ask where lies the conscience of the world.
Yes, the situation is complicated. The semi cease-fire attempts have been broken both by the Janjaweed and by the rebels who oppose the government. Yet it is incomprehensible that U.S. and world leaders find any item to be more important and urgent than genocide in Sudan.
And the hypocrisy is alarming, too. Ten weeks ago, on Nov. 8, 2006, Israel erroneously sent a missile to Beit Hanun in Gaza which tragically claimed the lives of 18 Palestinians, among them children. There was an international uproar. The United Nations, loyal to what has become its "mission statement," issued forth a condemnation and world leaders expressed outrage. The incident was discussed for weeks on the front pages of the world media and web sites. The missile was an error; it was targeting terrorists launching rockets against Israeli civilians, and Israel expressed regret for its devastating mistake. In Sudan, the government intentionally encouraged the murder of 400,000 innocent individuals, but weeks go by with scarcely a mention in the world's press.
The former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur are all conflicts that have taken many more lives than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet they receive nowhere near the attention that Israel does. There are 200,000 child soldiers in Sierra Leone alone, but who even knows about that? One peace activist, Rachel Corrie, ignores IDF warnings to stay out of the way and accidentally gets crushed by a bulldozer, and the world can't get over it.
In recent weeks we've heard the outcry concerning the inhumane method in which Saddam Hussein was hanged. "The means of his execution," former Carter speechwriter James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic, "is what will haunt us." Granted, even mass murders deserve a fair trial and execution, but why has the fate of Saddam inspired more compassion than the poor children of Sudan who are forced to observe in horror the flowing blood of their parents? Saddam's death will haunt us? Perhaps. But why doesn't the death of the 400,000 in Darfur and the 800,000 in Rwanda haunt us? Are we not observing today the truth of the profound psychological observation our sages stated long ago, that "One who exercises compassion toward the cruel, will end up exercising cruelty toward the compassionate." (Midrash Rabah Koheles 7:15.)
On Jan. 27, 62 years ago, Russian troops entered the little Polish town of Auschwitz, and saw sights we still find difficult to comprehend. It was their first glimpse of the Final Solution: the planned extermination of every Jew in Europe. It's hard to sense the sheer scale of the destruction. On Sept. 11, 2001, history was changed by a terrorist attack in which 3,000 people died. During the Holocaust, on average, 3,000 Jews were killed every day of every week for five-and-a-half years. And the killing didn't stop with just Jews: the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, gypsies and gays were murdered because they were different.
There is no comparison between the Holocaust and what is happening today in Darfur. The Holocaust was exceptional in the scientific precision with which it was carried out. It was unprecedented in the sheer scale on which it was conceived. But what made it different from other mass murders was that it served no interest. At the height of the slaughter, the Nazis diverted trains from the Russian front to transport victims to the extermination camps. As Emil Fackenheim once put it, the Holocaust was evil for evil's sake.
There is no comparison, but there is a connection. Both are what happen when human beings lose the capacity to live together despite our differences, and fail to make space for one another despite our conflicting aspirations.
In this week's portion (Bo), as the Hebrews are set free, Moses cautions them to "remember this day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Exodus 13:3). Moses knew how easy it is to forget and he warned his people never to forget. That is because those who forget the past are more likely to remain apathetic to those suffering in the present.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.
Readers’ Respond to Article "Aushwitz and Darfur"
Dear Rabbi Jacobson:
I was disturbed by your article. Don't we Jews have enough problems that we need to worry about? Israel is being threatened each day. Don’t you realize the dangers we are living in? We should take care of our brothers first. Of course, we are outraged about Sudan, but our resources are limited; there are enough nations out there to worry about Sudan. We are a small people, and we should look out for each other first.
Leib S. Boston
I'm very impressed by the article. Most of the time our people have blinders on, and they do not see how the future of Israel is in some way connected with what's happening in Darfur. We are all one. Thank you for this article.
I was born in 1952 so was not alive during the holocaust. Yet, I find it very troubling to read about Darfur and Rwanda, since I feel helpless to do anything positive to impact on those situations. What is the correct response if one is not in a financial position to even donate money towards this type of cause? Petitions? protests? e-mails?
Our country is currently being pushed into a public stance against the Iraq war which comes down to a fundamental fight against terrorists. Since they are labeled "insurgents" one gets the feeling that the fight is a localized one that the US as an outside force cannot solve. The mood in this country has shifted from one of “let us help spread democracy and stand up against terror” to that of "we can't solve everyone's problems and our boys shouldn't die in a useless battle." Twenty-five deaths of soldiers during the course of one day's horrible events became unbearable to our citizens, yet the kind of atrocities in these other places is not even an item in the news. We are becoming more self centered and selfish. Where do we find balance?
"Saddam's death will haunt us"? You quote in your article. It won't haunt me. What will haunt us is Jonathan Pollard still in prison after 21 years with no prospect to be freed for a crime that others paid with up to five years. If Pollard were an African-American, Cuban, or Porto Rican, the black, Cuban, or Puerto Rican community would have rioted. We let ourselves to be bullied into silence.
About 7 years ago, I was an adjunct professor teaching freshman composition and ESL to the foreign population at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, N.J. I was looking for interesting class material, browsing through the Village Voice. I came across a title: My people have turned to ash. I was prepared for an article on 1940’s Europe. Much to my surprise, it was one Sudanese Christian woman's testimony about her own personal account of what had happened in her village, and what was happening in many small villages of this Moslem country. Why was this virtually hidden from the public? I read newspapers, magazines; of course, the reporter whose name escapes me, was Jewish. There was an agency in Boston that acted as an information/education site about world slavery, but particularly Sudan. It was called the American Anti-Slavery Group. Not only did I immediately call them, but I taught, not just my classes, but other classes whose professors were supportive of this subject material. It’s ironic that the head of this organization was not Black, nor Christian. He was an obsessed, Orthodox Jew. The organization was started by him and a Christian Lebanese actor, Michael Ansara. (You may have remembered him as Daniel Boone’s (Fess Parker) Indian friend. I loved that show as a child.)
The first thing I realized was that slavery had not ended with Abraham Lincoln. There are 27 million people that are virtual slaves in this world, most of them women and children. But Sudan was far worse. It was a mirror image of the Jewish experience. Indeed, I remembered and was determined to speak out. I put together a symposium. The real experience was in the lack of support, apathy of the clergy, and, from the FDU Campus clergy, I was faced with some frightening opposition. A Black Muslim and Catholic Priest – one, soft-spoken, charming and full of militant anti-Zionist rhetoric; the other, a blatant Anti-Semite. The symposium was, however, a huge success. My local mentor/sponsor was a woman named Maria Sliwa, the sister of Curtis Sliwa. She supplied me with written, updated material, education, physical support and helped coordinate contacts for this event, including the president of the AASG. We were covered by the Press, and surprisingly, many faculty, administrators and students came. My friend, the Muslim Imam winked at me from the audience.
From his seat, he challenged a speaker and spoke proudly that, he had hosted, at FDU, the person responsible for bringing Fundamentalism to Sudan (again, the name escapes me); but, the head of the AASG, Charles, rebuked him: “Well then, you hosted Hitler.” The fact that the clergy council tried to frustrate my design, but let a man who, as the LA Times reported, had close ties to every terrorist organization in the world, partake of their hospitality. What is the upshot of this long monologue? As a result, the students themselves formed a club and participated in effective email campaigns and protest marches.
The next year, I organized a modern day Seder, featuring an ex-slave speaker. Here is the ironic part. I wrote to every clergyman in Bergen County. The first reply was Rabbi Mordecai Weiss from the Teaneck Chabad. He promised that he would donate the grape juice and matzo. Then, he asked me what I was doing for Shabbos, and invited my husband and I. We were unaffiliated and childless. Our neighborhood was not in walking distance of a Shul, and although our essence was Jewish, we were non-practicing. We were waiting to adopt a little girl from China. I asked the Rabbi if he shouldn't call his wife first – a foreigner to the ways of the Chassidim. From that dinner, we decided to take baby steps toward Jewish observance. We moved so we could walk to Chabad. We named our daughter Zehava. She is now five, and goes to Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva.
She understands/speaks Hebrew as my husband is Israeli. Although I “remembered” and recalled the anger I felt to find that nobody “knew” or screamed about the Holocaust in my parents’ era, we have brought the Jewish nefesh to its proper place – in the framework of practicing, Orthodox Jews. For me, it’s continuing to speak out against injustice, but prayer is my gentle weapon, as well.
To say the truth, I didn't think twice about Darfur till now. Now it dawned upon
me that there must be a horrific situation over there.
Yet I must add, that we were and we will be persecuted and hated no matter what sort of compassion we show toward the poor people from Darfur. We could try to help Darfur in any way possible, but it will not help remove the Jewish stigma. Look at the more liberal and less affiliated Jewish organizations busy trying to correct the problems of the world, neglecting to assist their own brothers, but at the end of the day, when darkness befalls us, they are treated just like the most observant and Hassidic Jews.
Finally, some words of sanity. You have assumed your responsibility to motivate people to reach out to the victims of Darfur. We must become universally sensitive, and do all that is possible to save the innocent people in Sudan. Thank you for finally rising to the occasion and becoming a voice for their plight. I will forward this article to every person I know. It is a must that everybody becomes aware and cognizant of the devastating and horrific truth in Sudan.
If we do not reach out to the victims of Darfur, with what right do we blame the world for ignoring the Holocaust?!