August 14, 2008
Dear Condoleeza Rice:
Last Saturday, on the Jewish Sabbath, I was attending prayer services at one of the big synagogues in Los Angeles, Beth Jacob Congregation, when something unusual happened that made me think of writing you this letter.
After the services, a young black man named Adam Akabar got up to speak. He was a Muslim refugee from Darfur, and he came to tell us his story and ask for our help.
His cause, he said, was to expose and protest the genocide going on in his homeland.
Akabar is a sweet-looking man, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s. In front of a few hundred members of the synagogue, he looked a little awkward, even intimidated. But he got more comfortable as he began telling his story. It started several years ago, when he was in college in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and he heard troubling reports from his home area of Darfur.
He got a digital camera and headed south to Darfur, where, at first, he worked as a translator in the camps for displaced persons. While interviewing people in the camps, he saw the extent of the atrocities, so he made it his mission to document them. For a few years, he secretly investigated and documented the genocide, until he was caught, shot and tortured by the Sudanese government.
By a stroke of luck, he was able to retrieve his memory cards when his camera was confiscated and destroyed
The pictures are so gruesome that the activist who accompanied him to the synagogue decided they wouldn't be appropriate for an audience that included families with children.
The absence of pictures, though, didn't stop members of the audience from expressing their sadness and frustration at the state of affairs in Akabar's homeland.
When it came time to ask questions, one person after another, many of them children of Holocaust survivors, wanted to know: "What can we do to stop this genocide?"
The answers, of course, were weak.
How could they not be? When an estimated 400,000 people have already perished, and millions are still being "cleansed," typical activist ideas like "write a letter to your congressman," "get on this Web site and make a donation" and "tell everyone you know" are simply no match for this level of crisis.
It's when I heard those weak answers, Ms. Rice, that I felt compelled to write to you.
Personally, I've been hearing about the crisis in Darfur for longer than I want to remember, and I've seen how celebrity activists and numerous groups around the world have done their best to expose and protest the genocide.
Yet, somehow, the years go by and the tragedy continues.
In the Jewish community, the word "Darfur" has become a shorthand for tikkun olam (healing the world). Sadly, though, we have reached the point where the infuriating absence of real progress has brought many of us close to "Darfur fatigue."
So I am calling on you, Ms. Rice, for the obvious reason that as the top diplomat for the most influential country in the world, you have real power.
Still, while I am envious of that power, I confess that when I look at your sense of priorities, I'm not very optimistic.
I don't understand, for example, how you could go to the Middle East 21 times over the past few years, and agonize for weeks on end on the Israel-Palestinian conflict over things like roadblocks, building permits and border crossings, and, while millions of Darfurians are going through a historical genocide, make only one short, ineffective trip in four years to that part of the world.
Even accounting for my innate cynicism about politics and politicians
Nevertheless, it's still not too late to save the Darfurians who are still alive. Congress has already passed legislation expressing its outrage and empowering you to act. Your boss would love nothing more than a foreign policy accomplishment to salvage something to his tarnished legacy. And you can bet this won't come from Jerusalem: You probably realize by now that in the present circumstances, a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians has the same likelihood of happening as Louis Farrakhan becoming an Israel-loving Christian evangelist.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that Jews don't appreciate your 21 trips to the Middle East. It's just that there are other areas, like Darfur in Africa, where millions of people are in clear and present danger, and they also need your immediate and undivided attention.
So go to Darfur, Ms. Rice, and make a stink. Knock a few heads. Expose the criminals. Do what you should have done a long time ago: Create an urgent global coalition to save the Darfurians.
You've already shown how you can bend over backward for the Palestinians, who have been under special U.N. care for decades, and who are easily the most coddled refugees in history.
Now show the world what you can do for the Darfurians, whose cause may not be as "politically relevant" as the Palestinians', but whose humanitarian crisis has no modern-day parallel.
In the little time you have left, you can still make a difference. Just be as tenacious with Darfur as you've been with Jerusalem and Ramallah.
And if you decide to go, I suggest you contact Adam Akabar and ask him to show you some of his pictures. Just make sure there are no kids around.