December 2, 2009
Bearing Witness to Tales of Terror
Jewish World Watch turns attention and advocacy to atrocities in the Congo.
In November, a four-person team from Los Angeles traveled on a 12-day mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, as well as to neighboring Rwanda. There the group, which was organized by Jewish World Watch (JWW), whose mission is to “combat genocide and aid its victims” under the lead motto “Do not stand idly by,” found themselves shattered by the misery and suffering they encountered, and they determined to bear witness when they returned.
Writing blog posts throughout their trip, each member of the mission tried to sort through what they were witnessing:
“I have seen pain — in the eyes of hundreds of malnourished children, their bellies swollen and their hair turning orange, their mothers desperately wanting to return home and make a life for themselves and their babies away from the clamor of the IDP camp,” Naama Haviv, JWW assistant director, wrote on Nov. 9 of one of the camps where victims of violence and famine are being harbored.
“But I have also seen healing, the kindness and warmth of Mama Gisele, the head nurse at the IDP camp’s clinic, who with tenderness and concern in her eyes shows us where children are fed, where women and girls are counseled. She tells us about doing home visits for girls that have been victims of sexual violence, trying to get to them within 72 hours so that pregnancy and HIV infection can be prevented. She and her team of nurses — all Congolese, mostly female — counsel families to ease their fears and educate them not to reject their daughters, wives and sisters that have already been violated once, and do not need more violation.
“I have seen destruction — of a young teenage girl who had been recently raped, lying alone in her bed at one of the clinics we visited. But I have also seen incredible strength and recovery — of mothers collecting as associations, helping each other pay for prenatal and maternity care. Of a little girl (a rape survivor herself), who told our friend Christine, when she had lost all faith in her work caring for victims of sexual violence, that she needed to remember that even when it was cloudy, there were always stars in the night sky — so too with God.”
Many of the reports by the JWW group are even more graphic, telling difficult to read stories of survival against gruesome odds. (Visit this article at jewishjournal.com for more postings from the trip.) But visiting real people and hearing real stories so they can be told again and again in Los Angeles and elsewhere is a large part of what JWW sees as its job. And while JWW’s first major initiative shined a bright light on the Darfur region of Sudan, with its 400,000 murdered civilians and 2.5 million refugees, the magnitude of the problems in the Congo even exceeds Darfur.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the much smaller Republic of the Congo) is a region the size of Western Europe with some 66 million inhabitants and is home to 250 different ethnic groups with 700 local languages and dialects. The country has been afflicted by just about every conceivable plague and disaster, and the statistics barely indicate the extent of the horror.
Since 1998, the count of murdered civilians there is approaching 6 million, a number that resonates especially with Jews. In addition, 1.5 million people have been displaced, often several times over, by warring militias.
A favorite tactic of the contending militias — local and from neighboring countries — are the mass rapes of women. Already there have been more than 500,000 victims of rape, destroying not only the women, but their families and the social fabric of whole villages as well.
Long exploited for its gold and other rich mineral deposits by its Belgian colonial master, since Congo’s post-war independence it has suffered constant government corruption, a crumbling infrastructure, destruction by internal and external militias and exploitation by industrial companies and nations.
Economic, rather than tribal, rivalries are at the root of Congo’s misery, experts believe, and the point was driven home last Sunday on the CBS news show “60 Minutes,” which described the situation as “the deadliest war since World War II” in a graphic segment on “Congo Gold.”
Traveling on the Jewish World Watch mission were JWW President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a veteran attorney, Soviet Jewry leader and human rights activist; Haviv, who in addition to being JWW’s assistant director is a graduate of this country’s only major in comparative genocide, at Clark University; Diana Buckhantz, a documentary filmmaker who has won multiple Emmys and serves as JWW’s public relations consultant; and John Fishel, outgoing president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Traveling with the group were photographer and filmmaker Mike Ramsdell, translator Pastor Isaiah, and local guides. JWW Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, who did not accompany the group, served as liaison to the mission.
The team visited 22 aid projects in North Kivu and South Kivu in the northeast Congo, the most devastated provinces in the country. The projects are backed by private groups throughout the world, including IsraAID, an association of 325 Israel-based humanitarian aid organizations. One of those, Moriah Africa, will likely become an ongoing partner with JWW in the Congo.
Story continues after the jump.
Photos by Michael Ramsdell
Fishel, who had visited Africa six times previously, including hard-hit Chad and Darfur, said that he was shaken by the experience.
“You hardly ever see a professional cameraman cry, so when I saw Mike crying, it meant that what the women were reporting was really devastating,” Fishel said. “It shows what can happen when a civil society collapses and total fear pervades the population.”
Buckhantz nevertheless saw signs of hope, even in a place she described as “a country not of the Third World, but of the Fifth World.”
“We saw women who were given sewing machines for the first time and were making beautiful handbags and children’s shirts,” she said. “We went to a school where the teacher was out sick, but all the kids were studying quietly and intensely on their own.”
“I didn’t want to leave,” Buckhantz said, “This was the most real and profound experience of my life.”
Kamenir-Reznik said that what she saw and absorbed prompted an epiphany. “You suddenly realize that but for an accident of birth, I could be the one in the refugee camp,” she said. “How can you sit in your beautiful home and not do something?
“Many people don’t want to hear about all this, they say, ‘My life is too neat to get involved in such things.’ But when I listened to these Congolese women, I thought that’s how Jewish women in the concentration camps must have felt, brutalized and totally abandoned by everyone.”
Yet, however admirable the emotional intensity and empathy of the JWW group, how does an organization with six staff members and an annual budget of slightly under $2 million choose among a hundred actual or potential genocides in the world at any given moment and try to help in one or two cases?
Furthermore, can an organization of this size really make a difference, when powerful governments and international bodies either turn their backs or seem unable to stop the carnage?
Jewish World Watch got its start in 2004, when, during a Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis put this troubling question to his congregants at Valley Beth Shalom:
“After the Holocaust, we asked where was the church when six million Jews were killed? Will our grandchildren ask, where was the synagogue when millions of Africans were murdered, raped or fled for their lives?”
Within a week, Schulweis had enlisted one of his congregants, Kamenir-Reznik, to join him in establishing JWW. Today, 30,000 individual donors and 550 organizations and institutions, including synagogues, churches, civic organizations and high school and college groups in the United States, Canada and Australia, support JWW’s mission.
Not the least accomplishment is the active involvement of 64 synagogues, ranging from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, without a single territorial or turf dispute, Schulweis testifies.
JWW’s profile rose quickly through work on its first major initiative, which focused on the Darfur region of Sudan. But new challengse awaited. Haviv, whose family came to the United States from Israel when she was a baby, was given the tough assignment of evaluating the world’s trouble spots for the JWW board and recommending where the organization might be able to go next to do the most good.
Haviv looked at some 100 conflicts in the world today, selected 30 at highest risk of escalating into genocides and then cut the list down to 10. Somalia and Sudan were numbers one and two, but the Congo ranked among the top 10.
A second analysis looked at where JWW might exercise the most useful advocacy and political leverage, with the Congo, Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka as the top selections.
A year ago, the JWW board approved the choice of the Congo, and it became Haviv’s job to find the contacts and work out the logistics to make the mission work.
Despite the fact that it is still a relatively young organization, in just five years JWW has received $10 million in contributions, of which $4 million has gone for direct relief aid, primarily to Darfur’s 2.5 million refugees, but also to the Central African Republic and Chad.
The direct aid includes the building of three medical clinics, construction of 25 water wells, distribution of 15,000 educational toys and another 15,000 backpacks filled with school supplies, shoes and hygiene items.
In a class by itself is the solar cooker project, a cheap and ingenious $15 device made of cardboard and tin foil. It allows women to cook inside the Darfur refugee camps instead of foraging outside for wood and risking rapes by roving Arab militias.
The project won a $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize for JWW’s Rachel Andres.
But direct relief is only one part of JWW’s three-pronged approach. The other two are advocacy and education, which account for 60 percent of the organization’s budget. And this is the immediate goal in the Congo, whose problems as yet are hardly known in the United States, let alone the Jewish world.
Political and media advocacy play to the strength of the Jewish community and JWW’s organizers, particularly Kamenir-Reznik. As former director of The Jewish Federation’s Commission on Soviet Jewry, she had seen how a cause boosted by a few single-minded individuals could catch the world’s attention and move so powerful an opponent as the Kremlin.
By virtue of their passion and well-marshaled arguments, Kamenir-Reznik and her colleagues have helped persuade CalPERS’ state, Los Angeles’ city and the University of California’s pension funds to divest from oil companies here and abroad supporting the oppressive Sudanese regime.
JWW has organized or participated in large rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco and the nation’s capital to demand action in Darfur and the Congo, initiated letter-writing campaigns to government leaders and has asked the major networks to devote more airtime to the crises in Africa.
JWW also made its presence and demands known during the Olympic torch relay, the annual Darfur Walk, in vigils at the Chinese and other foreign consulates and through its speakers bureau.
In its own community, JWW has also linked hands with Armenian, African American, Cambodian and other minority groups to advance human rights.
Much of JWW’s effort is directed at high school students, especially through its Activism Certification and Training (ACT) program. A follow-up initiative is ACT 13, which encourages parents and schools to incorporate refugee relief and anti-genocide advocacy as part of b’nai mitzvah preparations and projects.
JWW leaders are now considering whether to expand the organization’s activities to other cities but, in any case, the rest of the United States and Canada have started paying attention to JWW’s work.
This year, the organization was cited by the Slingshot directory as among the 50 most innovative and cutting-edge American Jewish nonprofits and described it as “a truly exciting movement on a grass roots level to engage communities in social justice.”
Previously, the United Nations Association of the United States of America conferred its Eleanor Roosevelt Award on JWW.
After numerous interviews, this reporter circled back to where it all began and visited Schulweis at his home.
As the initiator and sparkplug of many causes — from the hunger-fighting MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to a foundation to aid gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust — Schulweis said he considers JWW as his most satisfying undertaking.
He takes special pride in the participation of high school and college students in JWW, observing that “we have drawn a caricature of kids as spoiled and selfish, but that’s not the whole picture. They have a huge yearning for idealism, but they have to be encouraged at home and by the synagogue.”
In the adult community, “we have not demonstrated and we do not realize how big the Jewish heart can be,” he pondered. “Everyone endorses ‘tikkun olam’ [repairing the world], but we have to prove it in deed. We are a world, not a tribal, religion, and we have to act like one.”
Sometimes Judaism’s status as a world religion is recognized more easily by outsiders, and Schulweis cites the large checks JWW has received from the Mormon, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian and Unitarian churches.
That said, Jewish concern and support of Israel remains crucial, he noted, but it is a cause that is a relatively easy sell. In general, “our deepest sense of altruism is not being touched.”
At 84, Schulweis is a bit slower on his legs, but his eloquence, rated by admirers in the community as unmatched, and his drive to right the world, show no signs of slowing down.
“An idea a day keeps the doctor away,” he proclaims, and adds, “Did you know that the word ‘retirement’ comes from the French verb ‘retirer,’ which means ‘to withdraw’? Well, I’m not ready for that.”
Proving the point, Schulweis throws out a couple of new projects engaging his energy and vision.
One is to expand the horizons of young American Jews participating in the March of the Living to Poland.
“Now they see Auschwitz and then go to Israel, without any contact with today’s young Poles, who respect Jews and want to know about former Jewish life in Poland,” he said.
He endorses the current efforts of Friends of the Forum, which is encouraging the Polish government and church to work with Jewish organizations to organize regular encounters between Jews and Poles.
Schulweis also wants Jews on college campuses to talk specifically about what Jewish groups and individuals are doing to help other countries and ethnic groups, to counter the view of Jews as a self-absorbed tribe.
And as if this were not enough, Schulweis also plans to intensify his longstanding appeal for the Jewish community and synagogues to welcome potential and actual converts, “to reach out and embrace the seeker.”
Harold Schulweis, a lifelong seeker himself, looks toward the day when every Jew can stand up and say truthfully, “I am not only a victim, I am also a savior.”
Janice Kamenir-Reznik will speak on her Congo trip at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Friday, Dec. 4 after Shabbat services and at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills on Dec. 12. For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com. JWW will launch its new campaign, “Congo Now” at American Jewish University’s Gindi Auditorium on Dec. 15, 7 p.m. Free. RSVP Jewishworldwatch.org.