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.

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    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

    Estimated by whom? According to Wikipedia ( ), Darfur is the size of France and has over seven million inhabitants. I’m not a military expert, but 5,000 troops appears insufficient to police such an area. Even the 15,000 troop estimate from the BBC ( ) sounds small.

  2. Avi says:

    I can’t argue with anything Jonathan wrote. But I must admit that one thought that always creeps into my mind when I hear about the murder and oppression of Moslems is, “And what would they do to us Jews if they had the chance?”

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    At the risk of sounding even more anti PC than the author, I have commented here that Darfur neither can be viewed as genocide ala the Holocaust nor a pressing Jewish cause that should be viewed as a priority above and beyond all of the well documented needs within the Jewish community. IMO, the elevation of a bloody and violent tribal dispute into a Holocaust IMO shows a lack of ignorance about the Holocaust and tends to render it devoid of its true historical context as defined by the late Professor Lucy Davidowicz-Hitler’s deliberate campaign to render Europe Judenrein even at the expense of military resources and even if it meant that Germany would ultimately lose WW2. These facts are neglected by the liberal choir within the Jewish community and positively ignored by liberal academics.

  4. Micha says:

    I once tried taking R’ Isaac Sher’s message to heart. So, through a set of pe’ulos and qabalos (two mussar methodologies), I set out to change that. Eventually, I drowned in depression. Then, I avoided news media, as it was just too painful. Then the avoidance lead to a growth of apathy, to the point that I’m back around to where I started.

    The problem with the small world that technology has brought us is that there is too much pain in it for one mind; and that so little of what it defined as reportable news is happy. A human being simply can’t stand under the burden. Either that, or my experience proves I’m emotionally stunted.

    In Orthodox circles, it’s only the far left (e.g. R’ Avi Weiss, R’ Yitz Greenburg) who are committed to doing something about the killings in Darfur. Perhaps because they do not feel the same need to provide an equal and opposite reaction for every unorthodox action. The rest of us are relying on qulos (halachic leniencies), while taking pride in our levels of observance in other venues…

    As for Darfur… Perhaps the comparison to the holocaust is a bit much, although I must admit I engaged in it too. But there’s still a huge gap between not quite being the Holocaust and not demanding our response. In the fabric of human society, we are the mamlekhes Kohanim, Hashem’s priesthood to the world. And therefore an essential part of Jewishness is a mandate to be the world’s moral voice. There is no conflict between “focus[ing] our energies on our particular world mission as Jews” and “mak[ing] room for Darfur”. No more than a conflict between our particular world mission and finding a kosher mezuzah. Or perhaps I should choose another truly Jewish value that became neglected in Orthodox circles once the non-Orthodox shifted more stress to them, like perhaps studying Nakh or diqduq ([Biblical] Hebrew grammar).

    I also wonder about the chinukh (Jewish upbringing) issue. We need to not only organize and attend rallies and lobby trips, we must bring our children along. Otherwise, we run the risk of telling our children that Judaism is a set of rites and a warm little community, and nothing more.

  5. JR says:

    The real question is:why are the Gedolim not talking about Darfur and the Jewish duty. That is the real shanda.

  6. Micha says:

    That’s easy. Gedolim are only heard on the issues askanim (handlers, to be sarcastic about it) want to repeat their words about.

    As for shandas… I have enough of my own to take care of…

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    In regard to JR’s comment, I think someone should ask them. Each of you, go to the godol to whom you feel most connected and present the problem. I agree that it is a chillul hashem to have Torah Jews and their leaders speaking out and acting only when either we are the ones threatened or else when our communities stand to receive monetary gain or suffer monetary loss. When our own Jews were threatened with extermination in the Shoah, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l and other gedolim did everything they could to influence the government and public opinion, while heterodox-to-assimilated Jewish leaders like Stephen Wise perpetuated the cult of Roosevelt. Now the shoe is on the other foot. We must ask the rabbanim as our teachers to give a reasoned explanation of what the considerations are in setting such communal priorities. In the famous words of the German Pastor Niemoller, when they came for the Jews, I was silent because I was not a Jew. … When they came for me there was no one left to speak.

  8. Barry Kornblau says:

    For more than two years, the RCA has repeatedly made its Torah position regarding Darfur a matter of public record:

    August, 2004:
    March, 2006: and related link,
    April, 2006:
    May, 2006:

    Regarding comment #2 (by Avi): I fail to see why I should only act morally towards those whom I am certain will reciprocate.

    On a personal note: I brought my kid from New York to the Darfur rally in Washington, DC.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    in the last two years, has the RCA or any other Jewish group checked to see if their pronouncements and demonstrations about Darfur had any results in Darfur? We need to consider what we would have to do to achieve positive results, and what is our ability to do it. I realize that rallies and such also raise the conciousness of the ralliers, but we ought to want to accomplish more than that.

    Priorities also matter, as Steve Brizel commented above. Savagery is evident around the world, not only in Darfur, and this includes savagery planned or carried out against Jews. We need to focus our efforts according to Torah priorities. This is where we need input from Torah leaders.

    If the askanim Micha refers to above really are selectively blocking communications between the Gedolim and the Jewish people, we and the Gedolim urgently need to find a way around this barrier–to deal with many pressing issues, not only this one. Gatekeepers with their own agendas are a problem in many contexts, including government and business, and I’m sure there are strategies to control them.

  10. Avi says:

    Regarding Barry K.’s comment: I wasn’t addressing whether or not the Moslem victims of Darfur would reciprocate (i.e. try to save Jews when we are being persecuted). What I think is a valid point for further investigation is whether or not these Moslems would persecute Jews and Christians if they had the chance, given the significant number of Moslems who are in sympathy with the murder of Jews and Christians.

    As a thought experiment: imagine that the current low-grade civil war between Hamas and the PA goes full scale. Should we invest time, effort, money, or, most critically, soldiers’ lives in saving the people aligned with these groups? Or would we be more morally correct to use these limited/priceless resources for the many suffering people who do NOT want to blow up our children?

  11. Andy Rechtshaffen says:

    Every time we feel the pain of any human being, it cannot help but make us slightly more caring and feeling people. And every time we ignore the suffering of any human being, it cannot help but make us slightly more callous, unfeeling people.

    Our avodas Hashem calls for us to emulate Hashem’s rachamim.

    So for our own growth, as well as for the victims, we should try to feel the pain of the people of Darfur, and daven for an end to their suffering.

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    JR and Micha,

    I am certain that there are good reasons why Gedolei Torah have not taken a public position on Darfur, and likewise, why the charedi community as a whole has not lobbied for it. Instead of guessing, I think that the most reasonable thing to do is to ask one of them. If particular Gedolim seem inaccessible due to time constraints, then one can find out information about their position through a Rav who may have discussed it with them.

    If someone wants to take a concrete step, besides discussion here, I have seen that the OU website has links to elected officials and media people. One shouldn’t under-estimate the value of communication with politicians; they base their decisions about prioritizing their time and efforts upon feedback which they receive from their constituents.

  13. Avi says:

    I admire your thoughts; but would you agree that there is a line somewhere, beyond which we stop feeling and davening for people–Amalek, Nazis, Hamas? Shaul acted with too much rachmonus,and is a source for the Talmudic dictum, “He who has mercy on the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

    While it is certainly unfair to put the Darfur Moslems in the same category as Hamas, I don’t think it is logical to assume a priori that they are not in that category, either. I just wish that we had more information. Can anyone share information regarding the Darfur Moslems’ attitudes towards Jews and Christians?

  14. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    If American Jewry’s experience with the love engendered by our pioneering civil rights activism, and countless European stories about the beneficiaries of Jewish kindness and friendship being the first to join the brownshirts, haven’t taught us a lesson, maybe we should try it again with Darfur.

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:


    You make an important point; perhaps the necessity of keeping a low golus profile is why the Gedolim have generally not endorsed civil rights activism. However, each situation would probably be needed to be evaluated by Gedolim on a case by case basis. I think that after 9/11, for example, charedim participated as a community in relief efforts.

    One also has to balance the need of not ignoring others’ pain, as Rabbi Rosenblum quoted from Rabbi Sher, and as commentators here have pointed out. We need to maintain our havdalah and insularity, but we can not consider ourselves spiritual if we ignore others’ suffering.

    There was an excellent article which appeared in the Jewish Observer(March, 2004) “With Kindness and Respect”, by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman:

    Rabbi Finkelman writes:

    “Havdala means to recognize our status as G-d’s Chosen People and maintain a higher standard in all areas of life, a standard that unequivocally identifies us as a nation of Torah. It means to insulate ourselves, our families and our homes from the decadent culture of secular society. Havdala does not mean to view people of other faiths as non-entities, to be insensitive to their feelings and needs. This sort of attitude can only lead to chillul Hashem.”

    There are some amazing stories there about contemporary Gedolei Torah as well as ordinary people who respected non-Jews in ways that the non-Jews themselves never dreamed of. These stories happened precisely because they maintained the correct havdalah attitude. It is too long to quote these stories here, but I can e-mail anyone a “talking-point” summary which I have written(borhowitz at yahoo dot com). This is important to know, because in the past year, there have been several articles in the Orthodox media–print and online–which attribute attitudes to the Torah community that are both untrue and unfair.

  16. Shlomo Nissenbaum says:

    Did you see the new Derfner piece about the state that misrepresents Jews which jailed 200 black refugees from Darfur?

    Of course this is not at all surprising, since the state that misrepresents Jews was recently listed by the US State department as one of the world’s worst offenders in forced prostitution and human slavery. JPOST article. the problem is addressed every now and then in public and quickly forgotten.

    THese are the latest in a long line of reasons why Jews should disassociate from the state that misrepresents Jews.

  17. YM says:

    To Rabbi Rosenbloom, thank you for posting on this subject. This is the first time I have seen this issue addressed on any of the frum blogs. Both the RCA and OU have issued statements condemning the Darfur killing, but Barry, above, is the only frum Jew I know of (not that I know him) who participated in any of the rallies or marches. I also would like to know whether any of our leaders and gedolim recommend participation in rallies or other activities designed to bring about a change in Darfur.

  18. DMZ says:

    “Both the RCA and OU have issued statements condemning the Darfur killing, but Barry, above, is the only frum Jew I know of (not that I know him) who participated in any of the rallies or marches. I also would like to know whether any of our leaders and gedolim recommend participation in rallies or other activities designed to bring about a change in Darfur.”

    My wife and I were there. Two of our observant friends were there. There were many, many Orthodox-looking Jews there.

    I think the Orthodox turnout might have been higher than you think.


  19. muse says:

    I don’t have patience for that stuff. I visited NY 3 times in the past year, and each time the rabbi preached about Darfur and ignored Disengagement and the exiled, I felt worse than just “sick.”

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This