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Jewish Journal

First Person - Will You Be at Peace?

by Rabbi Ken Chasen

May 18, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I always knew that it would be very difficult to stop a genocide. I just never appreciated how difficult it would be merely to demonstrate against a genocide.

I was among a group of nearly 100 Los Angeles Jews who traveled to San Francisco on Sunday, April 30, to participate in the "Day of Conscience for Darfur" rally. In addition to being accompanied by more than 30 of my congregants from Leo Baeck Temple, I was delighted to be joined by a number of colleagues, including Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the board's bresident, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation.

The majority of us flew into Oakland that Sunday morning, and the rally organizers had arranged for us to be transported to the rally by bus -- only the bus never arrived. Forced to fend for ourselves, we quickly filled every taxi we could hail, urging the drivers to take us to the Golden Gate Bridge on the double.

As my cab began to depart from the airport, I remember being stunned when the driver indicated that he did not know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. There was no time to lose, so I started to fetch directions for him on my mobile phone. But as I focused intently on my job as our cabbie's navigator, I couldn't miss the conversation that he was having with my fellow passengers.

The driver identified himself as a recent immigrant from Darfur. Incredible. When he learned we were headed to the rally, he shook his head slowly, asking, "Are you Jews?"

When we confirmed his hunch, he snickered and said, "That explains it."

We couldn't resist taking the bait: "What do you mean by that?"

"There is no genocide taking place in Darfur," he replied. "I know. I lived there. This 'genocide' has been concocted by the Jews as a means of diverting the world's attention from what Israel is doing to the Palestinians."

As the conversation continued, he peppered his verbal assault with a few disparaging references to the "Israel Lobby," insisting that the truth would soon come out.

It was a rather surreal circumstance from which to emerge on the Golden Gate Bridge with 5,000 demonstrators determined to save Darfur. The rally was filled with inspirational moments. We heard from impassioned Washington legislators. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders implored us to stop the murders. Eyewitnesses to the slaughter relayed their heartrending accounts. African musicians filled the air with glorious song. It was an extraordinary day. But the episode in the cab served as a dark reminder of just how much vigilance it will take to stop this genocide before we are left to mourn it.

The 20th century offered repeated incontrovertible proof that launching a campaign against genocide, getting it to permeate the collective consciousness and mobilizing the masses to take action is a difficult challenge.

There are many, like our cabbie, who possess personal and political reasons to deny the atrocities, and their efforts are bolstered by the very banality of genocide. That is to say, genocide is not always especially newsworthy. Nothing new happened today in Darfur that didn't happen yesterday ... and that won't happen tomorrow.

This keeps a catastrophe like Darfur's out of the news, fueling the lies of the deniers and the disinterest of the millions whose righteous indignation will be needed to motivate the world to take action.

With the notable exception of Nicholas Kristof's venerable work in The New York Times, there is an embarrassing paucity of news about Darfur. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered, and millions have been displaced, but it is largely left to our imaginations to hear the cries of the victims. But if we listen closely enough, they can be heard. There are screams. Screams of women being branded and raped -- right now. Screams of children being chased from their homes. Screams of men knowingly taking their final breath.

Just another day in Darfur.

Can we remain silent and live with ourselves?

We have a responsibility because we are neither the deniers nor the disinterested. There may not be enough news about Darfur, but we cannot claim that we are uninformed. Talking about the tragedy is not enough. Weeping about the tragedy is not enough. We must relentlessly urge our legislators to move the world to action. On Capitol Hill and at the White House, they count up our phone calls. That's how they decide whether this genocide matters to us. That's how they decide whether we want them to take life-saving action. Knowing this, calling daily isn't too often.

As Jews, who know the scourge of genocide too well, we should each ask ourselves one question every day: "When this atrocity in Darfur is over, and the final losses are known, will I be at peace with what I did to stop it?"

During the week of the Darfur rallies in Washington and San Francisco, Jews all over the world were studying our famous command from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor."

Five-hundred more will perish in Darfur today. When the killing is over, will you be at peace with what you did to stop it?

Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air.

 

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