Thinking about Darfur
How much do you know about what is taking place in Darfur? When you saw the title of this piece, did a red light flash in your brain indicating “skip this one”?
Well, if you are like me, the answer to the first question is probably not very much. And the answer to the second question probably yes.
Oh sure, I’ve known for a few years that something horrific is taking place in the Darfur province of Sudan, and that Sudan is in Africa. But most of the time, I simply skipped the stories.
If I thought about Darfur for more than five minutes, it was usually as another proof of the hypocrisy of a world when it comes to the treatment of Jews and Israel. British academics, for instance, gather for annual rites of breast-beating about the apartheid/genocidal policies of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but seem to have absolutely no energy left over for real genocide in Sudan, or interest in sanctions against academic institutions in Sudan.
Even in a world in which the savagery of man to his fellow is hardly news, Darfur bears notice. Over 400,000 black Moslem tribesmen in Darfur province have been murdered by Arab Moslem militias known as the Janjaweed, in the last four years. Another two million have fled their homes ahead of the Janjaweed, whose leader, Musa Hilal, has declared it his goal to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.”
What the Janjaweed lack in Nazi-like efficiency, they have more than made up for in savagery. Abuse of women as a form of subjugation and humiliation, hideous torture of victims and mutilation of their corpses are widespread and systematic
The 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as acts committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. What is taking place in Darfur meets that definition.
Andrew Loewenstein, a lawyer sent in 2004 as part of a U.S. State Department team to investigate the situation, relates in the May 15 The New Republic some of the testimony gathered from survivors of the massacres. One man told how Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal announced in one village marketplace that he had been sent by the Sudanese government “to kill all the blacks in this area.” His purpose: “to give the Arab people freedom” by “clear[ing] the land to the desert.” Hilal was accompanied on that occasion by a Sudanese military officer, who ordered the villagers to obey him. Janjaweed attacks on the villages of black farmers were, according to Loewenstein, inevitably preceded by bombardment from the Sudanese air force.
Despite the clear evidence of genocide, the U.N., sworn protector of human rights around the globe, has explicitly absolved the Sudanese government of the charge of genocide. And for good reason: a finding of genocide would have actually obligated the U.N. and its member states to act to stop it. And as the U.N. peacekeeping forces under Kofi Annan proved in Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutus in the space of a few months, if there is one thing that the U.N. does not like doing, it is acting.
In a similar vein, a 2004 State Department memo prepared for then Secretary of State Colin Powell warned him against using the word “genocide,” lest it obligate the United States to actually do something. The Europeans have engaged in their usual hand-wringing to preserve their self-image as the exemplars of morality while showing steely resolve to do nothing.
The world’s indifference to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents occasions no surprise for Jews. We have long lamented the world’s silence and indifference to Hitler’s exterminatory plans for the Jewish people.
The question remains, however: Do we as Torah Jews have obligation to care or do more than others? Can our present indifference be defended?
To answer that question, we must first understand the sources of our indifference. In part, we simply do not wish to depress ourselves about things happening far away over which we have no control. At one level, that response might represent the counsel of psychological health. Certainly for those living in Europe there is little reason to believe that any level public protest could force European governments to act. European governments have simply become too habituated to what a The New Republic editorialist calls “a sophisticated form of indecency – to care about a problem without caring about its solution.”
Not that any such protest will ever take place. Only demonstrations against America and Israel generate any fervor among Europeans.
With the United States, however, the matter is different. American altruism, and the country’s self-image as “the last great hope of mankind,” make direct American intervention possible, especially if the body politic demands it. The experience of Somalia during the Clinton years serves as a warning against thinking that the vast technological superiority of the American military machine ensures that it can easily impose its will on much more primitively armed forces. Yet it is estimated that 5,000 American or NATO troops would be sufficient to force the camel-riding Janjaweed to back down and to neutralize the Sudanese air force.
Another possible explanation of our inaction is that there are others to carry the ball on Darfur, whereas we are the only ones who will address our special concerns – the future of the Jewish people, the preservation of Torah learning, the hardships faced by so many families within the Torah community.
Among non-Orthodox Jews, the universalizing impulse has run riot. Most Jewish giving no longer goes to Jewish causes, no matter how broadly defined. And those who do give to specifically Jewish causes often find themselves accused of retreating into a narrow tribalism, even by other members of the tribe. Jewish Federations in America have dropped the rhetoric of responsibility to one’s fellow Jews in favor of slogans emphasizing the virtue of giving – whether to hurricane victims or other Jews in need.
As the segment of the community most imbued with an awareness of the collective mission of the Jewish people in history, and that fulfillment of our mission as Jews cannot be separated from the study and observance of Torah, it is both natural and right that we should focus our energies on our particular world mission as Jews.
YET EVEN ACKNOWLEDGING ALL THIS, I’m still left with the feeling that we must at the very least make room for Darfur, and other tragedies on such mass scale, in our hearts and minds. In Yisroel Greenwald’s biography of Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, he relates how Reb Mendel once tore down a lewd calendar that he spotted in a car repair shop. Why, I wondered, did an old rabbi risk being torn apart limb by limb by the workers in the repair shop rather than just look the other way. The answer, I believe, is that he felt a sense of responsibility for the Hashem’s world, and viewed that calendar as a form of moral pollution. The deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of Africans is no less a pollution of the world that Hashem seeks to bring into being, whether we see it or not.
Just prior to Shavuos, I read an excellent article by Rabbi Noson Weisz attempting to capture the significance of Matan Torah. Rabbi Weisz argues that Hitler, ym”sh, rightly viewed the Torah as the source of all moral thinking in the world, and therefore sought to wipe out the Torah and its bearers. To prove his point, Rabbi Weisz invites his readers to engage in a thought experiment. Suppose that Jews had been well-integrated into German society, and that Hitler had decided to exterminate Turks instead of Jews. Can we imagine that the Jewish intelligentsia of Germany would have stood silently by while the Turks were systematically wiped out? he asks. Or that genocide could have continued in the face of full exposure of all its ugly details and fierce opposition?
True, the hypothesized moral opposition of the German Jewish intelligentsia would have constituted, at some level, a displaced expression of the impulse instilled in us at Sinai to bring the world to its completion through our devotion to Torah. Yet even those of us who devote ourselves exclusively to the study and teaching of Torah must not lose sight of the fact that we do so because our unique role is to bring human history to its ultimate goal, when all mankind will be filled with knowledge of Hashem – lesaken olam b’Malchus Shakai.
In order to be Hashem’s instruments for tikkun olam, we must remain constantly aware of our responsibility for every aspect of Hashem’s world and of how far the world is from its ultimate perfection. In that context, knowing and caring about what is going on in Darfur can inspire us to greater devotion to our unique task as His Chosen People.
The point I’m making was most clearly expressed by the Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher, the late Slabodka Rosh Yeshiva, in a speech to a group of American rabbis shortly before Rosh Hashana. (I am paraphrasing from memory.) He began by asking what a group of Orthodox rabbis could have to repent for prior to the Yomim Noraim. Then he answered his own question: You read your newspaper over coffee in the morning, and learn that 10,000 people have been killed in an earthquake somewhere in South America. You turn the page, and go on drinking your coffee. His point was simple: When things go badly awry in Hashem’s world, there is a message there for Torah Jews.
Originally published in London Jewish Tribune.