May 1, 2008
People who take their Holocaust seriously have to take other people's holocausts seriously.
You can run tacky, self-aggrandizing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times for your Holocaust memorial ceremonies -- ads that feature the faces of donors and dignitaries, as if we're honoring them -- but you honor the victims more by engaging in the day-to-day grunt work of preventing the next slaughter of innocents.
Of course you know by now that, since 2003, the Islamist government of Sudan and the Arab supremacist movement known as the Janjaweed have carried out a program of ethnic cleansing against African tribes in the Darfur region of Sudan. More than 250,000 Sudanese have died and another 2 million to 3 million have fled as a result of violence, starvation and disease. Jewish groups have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to confronting this genocide.
Organizations like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) helped mobilize thousands of protesters, and out of Encino, Jewish World Watch (JWW) sprang up in 2004 to help address the situation. Longstanding Jewish organizations added their voices in Washington and abroad.
But guess what: It's not enough.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with two Sudanese activists, one of whom had just returned from southern Sudan, and with leaders of JWW. The Sudanese's message was fairly chilling: If you think it's bad now, just wait.
"There is a war coming," Francis Bok, of the American Anti-Slavery Group, told me.
In 2011, the Interim Settlement Agreement between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the largely Christian and animist southern Sudan will end. That deal, signed in 2005, has so far kept the war-torn nation together. The end of the agreement will bring with it the very real possibility of wholesale chaos and slaughter.
In this month's Foreign Policy magazine, former U.S. Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios corroborates Bok's prediction. He outlines a scenario in which Sudan's Islamic government in Khartoum could obstruct further peace negotiations and hardliners in the south could provoke a confrontation in hopes of securing battlefield gains, leading to a full-scale war raging throughout the country. That would destabilize Sudan's neighbors, including Egypt, Chad and Libya; provide refuge and opportunity (again) for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; and lead to far greater suffering in the Darfur region itself.
"Peace cannot be achieved in Darfur if it is not secured between the north and the south," Natsios wrote. "The year ahead may be the most important in Sudan's post-colonial history."
Natsios quoted one African diplomat: "If the north and south return to war, it will unlock the gates of hell."
I met Bok, along with Kola Boof, of the Sudan Sensitization Peace Project, and JWW's founding president Janice Kamenir-Reznik at Milken Community Jewish High School, where the three were participating in a day to raise student awareness of the situation in Darfur. Bok had recently returned from Sudan, where he visited his native village of Gurian.
When he was 7, Arab Islamic raiders kidnapped him in the marketplace. He spent the next 10 years as a slave to an Arab farmer, enduring frequent beatings. When he was 17, Bok escaped. Within two years, he was testifying about Sudanese slavery before Congress and meeting with President Bush. Now Bok, who lives with his wife and two children in Kansas, lectures widely on Sudan and slavery.
"Francis is our Martin Luther King," Boof said.
When he returned to southern Sudan for the first time since 1986, Bok found his village almost empty.
"Most people were killed," he said. The survivors must have thought they were seeing a ghost.
"They had no idea who I was," he said. "They thought I had been killed."
But now such violence looks like the beginning, not the end. And activists like Bok hold out little hope for a settlement.
"We hope it will be peaceful becoming our own country," Bok said of southern Sudan. "But nothing has been peaceful dealing with Khartoum."
What, then, can we do?
China pumps the most cash into Sudan through oil purchases, and provides it with the most weaponry.
But Reznik knows a boycott on Chinese goods would be a hard sell. Her organization, which doesn't buy Chinese, has to pay 40 cents wholesale for each of those green rubber SAVE DARFUR wristbands that it could get from China for just nine cents.
So Jewish World Watch and other organizations see the 2008 Olympics Games in China as a touch point for awakening the world to the current hardship and the coming catastrophe. They are planning a series of protests and educational opportunities throughout the Olympics to convince China to pressure Khartoum.
"We believe this is more effective than a boycott," Reznik said.
Getting Hollywood on board has been helpful -- director Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from the Games was a high-profile move that helped push the Darfur issue to the front pages. But mass slaughter demands mass protest.
Tough as the situation is, taking action now can help prevent genocide in the future. After you attend a Holocaust memorial service, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org for a list of suggested actions -- not a bad way to mark Yom HaShoah.