I want to open up the following discussion with my fellow bloggers and with any of the millions of of our readers who care to comment (gee, I hope the server can handle it):

How should our community – in this case, let us define that as the highly affiliated, religiously/philosophically traditional, observant Jewish community – react to (or become involved in fighting) if at all, the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Sudan?

Speculation: In general, I think that our community views (and is anxious to protect the idea of) the Holocaust as a unique event, different somehow in kind from other mass crimes against civilian populations. Often, I think the community resists associating other contemporary horrors with the Holocaust for fear of diluting or diminishing the singularity of the horror. Nonetheless, while preserving the unique dimensions of the Holocaust – (e.g., the importation of victims with the purpose of ultimate eradication as opposed to clearing a geographical area of a target ethnic/religious group), one would think that the Jewish people – particularly those who live with a consistently high level of Jewish consciousness – should be highly sensitive to massive suffering inflicted on civilian populations.

I do not sense that to be the case.

Why is that? Is it because we still feel like powerless victims (I certainly feel helpless regarding the plight of Jews confronting terrible anti-Semitism in other countries, for example)? Is it because Sudan seems so alien to us (perhaps for similar reasons, the West generally focuses more on the suffering of people in the West)? Is it something inexcusable – or does it need no excuse at all?

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19 Responses

  1. David Brand says:

    Jeff, You bring up two interesting points. With regard to preserving the Holocaust as a “singular” event, I can speak as a direct descendant of Holocaust survivors. A great mistake is made, generally by those who are not observent, when the Holocaust is singled out. As frum Yidden, we look at any great Jewish suffering on a historical, rather than a local scale. In the Haggadah, we talk about how they come against us in every generation. Unfortunately, many Jews now identify their Judaism with the Holocaust but don’t even know that Shavuous exists. Those who are more religious recognize that Jewish suffering, and by that I mean all of the history of Jewish suffering, is commemorated on Tisha B’Av.

    Regarding your separate question of why the more observant Jewish community does not do anything about the great tradgedy in the Sudan, perhaps it is because efforts to help seem so futile. For example, a great deal of food aid is stolen by the local warlords. Another factor is that the UN could be doing more to help the situation. (This is yet another argument that the US should just pull out of the UN and replace it with an organization that actually does something.) Yes, Sudan is definitely in need of a regime change. As far as our community’s response, I wonder if you have any suggestions to help end this tradgedy. What is the Bush administration’s stance?

  2. Jeff Ballabon says:

    Good points all. Let me broaden my speculation based on your first observation – among the traditional, who tend to have a longer historical viewpoint, it is perhaps not merely that we view the Holocaust as unique, but Jewish suffering as unique. So, I am asking: are we preserving the sense of uniqueness at the cost of becoming jaded from human suffering? Aren’t we told at the very beginning of our national existence, by G-d Himself, that we should learn empathy for others from our own painful experiences in bondage?

    As for the issue of futility – let’s assume arguendo a lack of practical ideas for ameliorating the situation through the political process: but why don’t we daven for the suffering of innocents? Why no sermons? Why no outrage?

  3. David Brand says:

    From a religious/mussar perspective, we need to understand that ANY human suffering is significant, and that it requires that we all do Teshuva. As far as I’m concerned, today has been very difficult knowing that 60,000 people have died as a result of the earthquake with the possibility of many more. Have I davened for them? You bet! The OU has a blurb on fundraising for the victims. In a sad contrast to the Sudan victims, the worldwide aid coming to quake victims has a much higher likelihood of reaching its intended recipients.

    As far as davening in general for victims of suffering, my Rov was quite clear this year. During the Yomim Noraim, he spoke several times and let us know that our job was to daven for the welfare of the ENTIRE world (although I admit he did not single out the Sudan). He spoke passionately about how each and every crisis in the world could be helped by our davening. I would guess that every Rov in the country will talk about the great human suffering that happened this week on Shabbos. Perhaps we can encourage ourselves to daven to end all human suffering in the world. Thanks for starting the discussion here!

  4. Hanan says:

    You bring up a great question. I would love to know what we can do and I have been meaning to ask why the orthodox community does not seem to talk about the horrors in Sudan. In my opinion I think that there those in the orthodox community that just sees this as a non-jewish problem. Since Jews are not being killed, it will eventually be resolved and they don’t see a need for them to worry about it. Perhaps I’m wrong. And yes, I believe in the quest to preserve the uniqueness of the Holocaust we have indeed become Jaded from non-Jewish suffering. I have actually heard the Reform community discussing it, but again, in my opinion the orthodox have been silent on this issue. Perhaps IT IS because we see ourselves as powerless victims, I don’t know. We should not be the last ones on Earth to come to aide of the victims in Sudan, but I too am in need of suggestions on how we can help.

  5. David Brand says:

    Correction!! Looks like I was wrong about help getting to some of the survivors of the earthquake disaster. Looks like Sri Lanka is refusing Israeli aid.


  6. Yaakov Menken says:


    I’m surprised you didn’t mention that the article points out that Zaka, the religious volunteer rescue and recovery organization, has already sent a team to Sri Lanka. In other words, the first Israeli group — and probably the first Jewish group — to arrive and help on-site is an organization of Torah-observant Jews.

    Hanan, the Orthodox don’t need to apologize. It’s interesting — the NY Jewish Week did a charity survey of Jews a few years ago. We all expected to see the Orthodox most likely to have donated $5,000 to a Jewish charity within the survey period (I think it was one year). But do you know which group was most likely to produce $5,000 donors to non-sectarian charities, demonstrating a commitment to Tikkun Olam? Wrong — once again, it was the Orthodox. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

    So why not the Sudan? Well, not only is it far away, but much of the country is composed of Muslim Arabs. Many have been raised to hate us with a passion, and it’s one thing to say we should harbor animosity or hate ourselves — and another to say we should cry for them. I don’t mean to be callous, but I can’t help everyone, and I’ll first help those who won’t return the favor with the business end of an AK-47. The irony is, of course, that the people being killed in the Sudan are largely the non-Arab Christians in the south — meaning, not the people who hate us. But nonetheless, the Orthodox do tend to deal first with Jewish and Israeli concerns — of which there are, unfortunately, an abundance.

    But there’s another problem — it’s not that the Sudanese don’t deserve help, and aren’t getting help, it’s that the food can’t reach them. There’s a whole food convey waiting to give these people the food they need, but until the warriors will lay down there weapons, there’s simply nothing we can do. Again, talk is cheap — it’s not as if huge donations are needed. Someone has to stop the fighting in order for people there not to starve.

  7. Jeff Ballabon says:

    Oh, please, Yaakov. It is not as though the Jewish community is frustrated about what to do in Sudan because we are stymied. The fact is that the community just is not interested. I haven’t seen any hand-wringing, much less any efforts to try to lessen the suffering. “Someone else’s problem.” It seems wrong to me.

    But what I sense you may be saying also (not directly, to be sure, but in between the lines in the AK-47 remark) is that we shouldn’t get involved because they all hate us anyway. Is that part of the equation? Should it be?

  8. Hanan says:

    Ok, great, there was a survey done a few years ago. Now-a-days some reform institution will hand me a survey saying they contribute more. I’m not saying the orthodox don’t give, but I would have to agree with Jeff Ballabon, that the mainstream orthodox, at least in my area, are not interested in Sudan. Like you said, the orthodox do tend to deal with the Jewish problems first, but I believe that sometimes these problems are not weighed correctly. I too often have been solicitated to donate money to yeshivot (for example) in Israel, yet I have never heard of trying to help other countries where lives are in danger.I have no problems with helping yeshivot or synagogues or other things for the Jewish community, but it would be nice to see some of our community leaders recognize that we are not the only ones with big problems. I stick to what I said before about orthodox not seeing a need to help the non-Jews. I know of a few people in the orthodox community who believe God does not love or care for the non-Jews.

  9. David Brand says:

    According to this
    The world Jewish population is DOWN to 12.9 million. Of those, how many identify themselves as observent of Torah/Mitzvos? Maybe 10%? That would put the worldwide frum population at around 1.2 million people. Yahoo puts the population of Sudan at around 35 million. http://education.yahoo.com/reference/factbook/su/popula.html
    At some point, we have to acknowledge that we cannot solve every problem in the world by ourselves. At the same time, it has come to light (for those of us who didn’t already know) that the generousity of the red-staters is much greater than that of those who live in the blue states. Perhaps some type of effort that could be initiated by the frum but targeted toward the red-state non-Jewish population. Their numbers are far greater than ours.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    Jeff, I didn’t say we shouldn’t get involved, but attempted to answer your query as to why we appear not to be highly sensitized to what is going on in the Sudan. This observation may indeed explain, to some extent, why people are holding back.

    Hanan, the survey was recent — two years old, perhaps. There’s no evidence that attitudes have changed profoundly within this decade. The fact is that the Orthodox do care, as demonstrated by Zaka volunteers leaping on a plane to Sri Lanka.

    Let’s be reasonable. What do other nations do? The Sri Lankans turned down an official Israeli aid group because some of the group are military rescuers. They care more about their politics than the lives of their own. And that is sadly typical — the same thing happened at the Taba hotel. The Sri Lankans only recently recognized Israel, yet observant volunteers rushed onto a plane to help save lives over there.

    That’s who we are. So by any standard, but especially by comparison, we do very well. Jews are charitable and the observant especially — because to us, it’s a Mitzvah.

    Now when it comes to the Sudan… you also know that we don’t celebrate the death of innocents. Others, as you know all too well, danced in the streets when the Twin Towers were attacked. But when a group of people that want to kill you, die instead, how do you know that that isn’t Divine mercy? When the Iran-Iraq war was going on, I heard a great Rosh Yeshivah in Jerusalem say wryly, “they should both lose.”

    The Sudan is a known sponsor of terrorism. They are under US sanctions. They only recently ordered Syrian weapons of mass destruction out of the country — because they are afraid of the US. Well, a little internal distraction for the Sudanese may not be such a bad thing for us.

    UPDATE: Someone has already announced that the above is my position on “why we should ignore genocide and let innocent Sudanese in Darfur starve to death, be raped, pillaged and looted, and murdered.” Of course, that’s because the poor fellow cannot read. First and foremost, as I said below, there is nothing we can do. If there were, the actions of Zaka demonstrate what our response would be. So I neither said we should ignore it nor, certainly, that we should “let” anything happen.

    There is, unfortunately, no situation of military conflict in which innocents are not hurt. The US liberated Afghanistan — and thousands of civilians were killed. The US liberated Iraq — and thousands of civilians were killed. In this situation it could be much worse… we don’t know. And we are not G-d. We do not know who is truly innocent and who, given the option, would want to kill us.

    When it is in our hands, what do we do? The Israeli army is second to none in the avoidance of civilian casualties (what other armies call “collateral damage” — now that is callous). But here, we have no opportunity to interfere. Given that G-d has not seen fit to allow us a role here, is this the thing about the world that we most need to daven (pray) for — or should we instead pray for the Messianic Age, during which all nations will cease to war with each other? If we truly mean it when we pray for the Messiah, we are praying for true peace on earth.

    When you compare that to everyone else, and take into consideration the fact that there isn’t anything we could do anyway, I really don’t think it means something is wrong with us. We are indeed compassionate, and if there were something we could do, I truly believe that we, too, would respond to the appeals — even though, as David said, you can’t expect Orthodox Jewry to lead every charitable effort.

  11. I think Rabbi Menken is confusing the Sudanese government with the Sudanese people when he advocates “a little internal distraction.” In general, the Torah world’s emphasis on reviving the ritual aspects of Torah life after the Holocaust seems to have had the unintended consequence of not only
    making it appear as though social issues are less important than mitzvos bein Adam LaMakon (I don’t remember any frum people marching along with A.J.
    Heschel), but in actually fostering such an attitude. Certainly unintentional, but nonetheless…

  12. Yaakov Menken says:

    Moishe, I don’t think I am. See my “UPDATE” above. I’m not advocating distraction. I’m not even advocating leaving them alone, if we have the opportunity to help! But if we can’t, I’m not willing to condemn those who fail to sit around wringing their hands. Jeff asked if the absence of outcry is inexcusable, and I am finding limud zechus (generous interpretation) towards the attitude.

    Let me approach it a different way. Right now, there are millions of people in bad situations where we can help. A person only has so many tears.

    Darfur is for people who like to talk. As I said, talk is cheap. There’s nothing you can do except feel good about yourself for writing a press release about it. But there are sixty different situations where there is a Jew in need somewhere in the world right now, where you could make a real difference in his or her life.

    What are you doing about them? What about all of their needs, where you can actually do something?

  13. Rabbi Menken – Theoretical response: Your limud zechus is fair, but at the same time, it seems to foster indifference. Lo alecha hemelacha ligmor, and all. (The personal question seems largely irrelevant, but for what it’s worth, I am quite certain that I haven’t done enough for any number of very legitimate concerns.)

    Practical response: Among Israel’s pressing problems now is a lack of reasonable empathy from otherwise disinterested quarters, which has the effect of politically constraining otherwise appropriate responses. Perhaps there is value to an outcry simply stating that we, as people, share others’ pain.

    I respect your generosity of interpretation, but personally, I don’t think that it is as accurate an explanation as simple provincialism.

  14. Yaakov Menken says:

    For many of us, you are undoubtedly right. And I apologize if you took my previous use of “you” too literally. My point was made to any reader — because none of us are doing all we conceivably can, and we need to focus our limited energies where they will do the most good.

    But I think our response in Sri Lanka shows that we as a community are not all that provincial. When there is something we can do, we do. That shows empathy and sharing of others’ pain far more loudly than words.

  15. Jeff Ballabon says:

    R. Yaakov – you’ll pardon me, but I find your arguments less than persuasive. Limud zechus is extremely valuable – but seldom when it requires contortions and never where it interferes with serious cheshbon hanefesh.

    The more you argue, the more I feel as though it must indeed be a moral failing within our community because I find your justifications forced, your political analysis (“we’re powerless”) inconsistent with reality, and your implication that we’ve formed a policy of communal non-engagement as a result of such realities completely disingenuous. The fact is, the community is showing complete apathy – not agonized frustration. Here’s a simple test: how many tehillim have we said for the victims?

    Now, you’ve also raised the issue of the possible unworthiness of the victims to receive our support (although, unless I’m mistaken, you’re blaming the victims of the Muslim Sudanese for the anti-Semitism of their murderers). But at least that is a position that is worth analysis. Are the Sudanese Christians people we should be interested in helping? Has anyone tried to find out? How do we find out? Is there any group anywhere in the world Jews would think worthy of help based on some calculation of moral worthiness (or lack of anti-Semitic sentiments)? Should we be engaged in such calculations at all?

  16. David Brand says:

    For those who ask what we can do, the US Holocaust Museaum has an answer:
    As far as the question about Tehillim, I would have to answer that we’ve had so many up-close and personal tradgedies here in Chicago, coupled with the general situation in Israel, that the docket for Tehillim gatherings was pretty full without focusing on other things. Is that provicial? Does that somehow give us a heter to ignore other suffering? That’s a tough one, Jeff

  17. Yaakov Menken says:

    Jeff, now that you have the answer, you have changed the question. Your original question was not whether people should behave this way, but why they do. Should we analyze and/or set communal policies about support? We can discuss that. Should we make a cheshbon hanefesh? Always. But all of those are considerations in advance, unlike your original question about this particular situation. Why, indeed, the apparent apathy? “Is it something inexcusable?” Is it xenophobia? And my answer is no, I don’t think so.

    The justification is forced. It is a limud zechus, rather than encouragement of this as a world view. I’m not recommending that those who are concerned stop caring. Your question was “b’dieved” (after the fact) — don’t take the response as a “heter l’chatchila” (permission to go behave this way from the outset).

    Since the news reports say that the food is available but not getting through, I don’t see “we’re powerless” as “inconsistent with reality.” If we’re not powerless, I’d be happy to know how. I was basing that on the news.

    On what basis do you assume “a policy of communal non-engagement?” Zaka’s mission to Sri Lanka and donations by observant Jews to non-sectarian charities demonstrate the opposite. Don’t expect Orthodox Jews to be equally responsive towards non-Jewish causes as towards Jewish causes — every group looks out for their own. But nonetheless, the Orthodox are more responsive towards non-Jewish causes than are others — and we are merely assuming that it’s not true in this case, given a lack of communal gatherings. There has been no communal gathering regarding the tsunami, yet observant Jews have put their lives on hold to go save people in Sri Lanka.

    In this case, the news reports say we are powerless. People do fail to respond when the reports tell them not to bother. So that’s an excuse. I’m not saying you should not respond — again, I’m answering your question by saying no, it is not inexcusable.

    And when when people hear “Sudan,” I submit that the first word association is more likely to be “terrorism” than “starvation.” According to the US State Department, Sudan harbors a great number of our friends, such as the Abu Nidal Organization, Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and others. The fact that the government is in trouble and all these groups disrupted is probably a benefit.

    All of which probably explains, to some degree, why otherwise compassionate, caring people sit near the radio, hear that people are dying in Sudan, and fail to respond — or to even notice that the people who are dying are not terrorists, but innocent Sudanese.

    I’m not recommending a world view. I’m saying that the silence in this case is indeed not a moral failing, but perhaps simple failure to perceive who is truly being affected, and what can be done.

  18. Shmarya says:

    Would that explain the previous silence regarding Cambodian genocide? The Ethiopian famine in 1984?

  19. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    There are notable exceptions to the rule. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (OK, I will admit to working there!) does involve itself in many humanitarian projects around the globe. Sudan is one of them. A Sudanese expatriate living in Southern California approached the Center, largely because she knew that Jews had hearts. (While the mandate of the Center is secular and not religious, many at the helm just happen to be Orthodox Jews.) It resulted in a trip – at some personal risk – by Rabbi Abraham Cooper to meet with the heads of the Sudanese government. You can read about it (and see incredible pictures of some staunch Moslems receiving Rabbi Cooper with his yarmulke) at http://www.wiesenthal.com/social/press/pr_item.cfm?itemID=8936

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