As early as March of this year, humanitarian organizations were issuing warnings of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan. For a long time these warnings continued to be ignored by most of the mainstream and Jewish media, and Americans remain virtually unaware of the atrocities occurring there. Are we Jews to do nothing when we know better?
While most of the media and our elected officials have been ignoring the world's largest humanitarian crisis today, African tribal farmers in Darfur, Sudan, have been displaced, murdered, raped, tortured, starved and kidnapped by Sudanese government-backed militias known as Janjaweed whose sole purpose is to rid the region of its black population.
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. Such lessons we learned only too well from the Holocaust. Furthermore, Leviticus teaches, "Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors." Jerry Fowler, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience recently returned from the region and described its horrors, and the Committee has issued its second ever genocide warning (www.ushmm.org/conscience).
Currently, the United States government is pondering whether or not to label the Darfur atrocities as genocide. While our government contemplates the political ramifications of the accusation of genocide, villages are being razed; women and girls are systematically raped and branded; men and children are brutally slaughtered. Murdered children and livestock have been thrown in wells to deliberately poison water supplies. Damns have been blown-up, water pumps destroyed, schools, houses, clinics and even mosques burned, though the perpetrators, like their victims, are Muslim.
The purpose is to drive the ethnic Africans from the region. The brutal violence has resulted in over 30,000 deaths and the displacement of as many as two million Darfurians. An estimated 200,000 refugees have crossed the border into Chad, and only in the past few weeks have humanitarian agencies had access to limited portions of the affected region.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that a minimum of 350,000 people will die even if humanitarian aid reaches the affected populations. As many as a million people could die if aid is withheld or unavailable.
The world avoided using the word "genocide" when 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Our government avoided using the term in Rwanda 10 years ago when 800,000 people of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered in 100 days by their government. Are we to repeat history or make it?
American Jews responded in Bosnia; we must respond in Sudan. We can prevent these atrocities from occurring and we can prevent a million people from dying.
The Jewish response is growing. Since April, American Jewish World Service has been providing essential humanitarian services to many of the affected populations in Darfur and Chad. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella coalition comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, has asked each member organization to urge their constituents to act (www.jcdr.org). The Reform Movement, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Anti- Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Jewish Council on Public Affairs have all issued statements.
And there is renewed hope this week in increased action as members of Congress begin to respond as a result of these pleas, and Secretary of State Colin Powell and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan visit the region.
As Jews who know firsthand the consequences of silence from the international community, we must do all that we can to prevent or stop deliberate attempts to annihilate any people. We must respond with aid and advocacy, both of which can be addressed quickly and efficiently through the American Jewish World Service Web site: www.ajws.org.
So call it what you want -- genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity -- but do respond while there is still time to save as many lives as we can.
Ruth W. Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization.