Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism at the Stand Firm: A Vigil for Sudan with the Jewish Community
September 24, 2002
Contact:Alexis Rice or Ariella Thal 202-387-2800
This week, millions of Jews around the world are celebrating the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is one of three Jewish festivals during which ancient Jews in Israel would collect a portion of their harvest and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Ancient Israel, to offer as a sacrifice to God.
During this festival week, Jews are commanded to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling to remind us of the temporary booths in which the Children of Israel dwelt during their forty years in the desert on the journey from slavery to freedom. During this week, Jews sit in the sukkah with their families, eat, sing, and welcome guests.
But the symbol of the sukkah has another significance as well. Each evening in prayer Jews recite the Hashkiveinu. It contains the line Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha: Spread Over Us the Sukkah of your Peace. Why did the author of the prayer use that particular image, the sukkah of peace? After all, peace is one of the highest of all Jewish values, and the sukkah is relatively common and ordinary. Why does the prayer not say, "build over us the stately mansion of peace," or "the majestic palace of peace," or use another image that would seem more to capture the grandeur of peace? In other words, what does a sukkah have to do with peace?
In fact, the Sukkah has quite a lot in common with peace. A mansion or palace is built on a strong foundation, out of concrete or stone. Once it is built, it will stand by itself for hundreds of years. But a sukkah is quite different. It is temporary. It is fragile and vulnerable to the elements. A strong wind can come along and easily blow it over. It can be undermined by water seeping through the ground or burnt if someone drops a lit match. You have to watch it almost constantly, care for it incessantly, lest it be destroyed.
The same is true for peace. Peace has been far more like a temporary sukkah than a permanent castle. One historian calculated that since the year 1500, there have been only about 30 years in which there was no warfare of any kind anywhere in the world. We erect structures of peace with care, but they are all too easily blown over by strong winds of hatred, or undermined by the seeping waters of suspicion, or consumed by the fires of nationalistic self-righteousness. In order to protect the edifice of peace, we have to be constantly on guard; we cannot take for granted that peace once achieved will automatically endure. We must invest political and economic resources in sustaining and strengthening the structure. These are lessons we have learned all too bitterly in our own time.
Nowhere in the world is the fragility of peace so evident as it is in Sudan. Since Sudan achieved independence in 1956, the Sudanese people have enjoyed only a few years of peace. And for the last 20 years, Sudan has been engulfed in a bitter and devastating civil war between its northern Muslim region and its southern region, composed of mostly Christians and animists. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom tells us that the Sudanese National Islamic Fundamentalist government, known as the NIF, has consistently been engaged in violent religious persecution of its citizens, particularly but not limited to non-Muslims in the South, describing Sudan as the most violent abuser of religious freedom in the world. The NIF government has bombed and burned numerous hospitals, refugee camps, churches and other civilian targets; engaged in instances of forced conversions of Christians and Animists to Islam; and violated in countless ways the human rights of its country's citizens. More than two million people have perished and nearly five million people have been driven from their homes by ruthless NIF action. Today, southern Sudan has the world's largest population of displaced persons. Each day the number of innocent victims of the Sudanese government's war against its own people rises, and the violence continues with little significant movement for peace.
I am here today because, for thousands of years, Jews have been among the quintessential victims of persecution and oppression simply because of who we were, because of what we believed. We waited for others to speak out - but often there was only silence. Two lessons of that history compel us to address this urgent humanitarian and moral disaster.
The first lesson of that history, most dramatically in the form of the Holocaust: is that moral tragedies occur when people of conscience turn their backs on evil. During the tragedy of the 20-year civil war in Sudan, the world has been callously indifferent and tragically silent. Too many European nations engage in business as usual with Sudan and too many other nations turn a blind eye. If the words "Never Again," which we use to describe the Jewish commitment to prevent another Holocaust mean anything, they compel us to stand up visibly and vocally whenever we see the beginnings of genocidal activity. Thus, we stand here today.
The second historical lesson that brings us here is based in one of the most seminal moments in Jewish history - one that helped transform the imagination and inspire the moral conscience of the world: the redemption from slavery in Egypt. It was three thousand years ago, and yet its impact is still inscribed in the mind and heart of every Jew. We know the devastating, lasting impact slavery can have. For this reason, we cannot turn our backs when others are enslaved today.
As the United Nations has affirmed, today Sudan is one of the only nations in the world currently practicing chattel slavery. Slavery not only exists but it is facilitated by the government. When, at the Passover seder table we are commanded that each of us must recall the Israelite slavery as if we, ourselves, were still slaves in Egypt, God has mandated that our destiny is linked to any who are enslaved today. And so again, there is nowhere else we should be today but here, before our Department of State, urging that our nation engage in effective action on behalf of the people of Sudan.
And let us never forget that every person who is enslaved or persecuted has a human face and a family; dreams that are shattered; and hopes that are denied. They are children, stolen from their parents, sold into slavery and forced to convert to another religion. They are Christian mothers, searching for their missing sons. They are fathers, watching their families' die of starvation. They are students who have nowhere to learn, because the government has destroyed their schools. They are the victims of bombings, gunfire, and starvation, who lie suffering in the blistering sun without proper medical attention because their hospitals have been burned down. They languish in prisons, and suffer torture, simply because they love God in their own way. They are our brothers and our sisters, and we refuse to stand idly by.
As an American Jew, I am proud of the strong position taken by our community in urging intervention to stop the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo. And we were one of the earliest and most forceful voices on behalf of intervening to stop the killing in Rwanda. We acted because we knew that people of conscience speak out when whole peoples are uprooted and displaced, imprisoned and butchered. But consider this. If you total those who were slaughtered as the world stood by in the terrible tragedy in Rwanda - a place where, at the height of the killing, people were being slaughtered at a rate matched only by the worst days of the Holocaust - and you add to that all of those who died or were displaced in Bosnia and Kosovo, the numbers do not total the two million people killed in Sudan, nor the nearly five million displaced. And the killing goes on.
We cannot allow this to continue. Today it is time to focus our energy on bringing about a just peace and an end to the killing, the slavery, and the religious persecution in Sudan.
Creating a lasting and stable peace is no easy task. According to Jewish law, a sukkah that has a solid roof is unacceptable. In order to be valid, the roof must be made of branches so that you can look through the spaces and see the stars of the heavens. This reminds us of the infinite potential of humanity under conditions of peace. If we could but help channel into the pursuit of peace in Sudan the resources and energy that are squandered on war, how different the lives of the Sudanese people would be.
And what should American do today to reach for those stars? The Sudan Peace Act is an integral step in promoting peace in Sudan. In addition to condemning Sudan for its practices of slavery and other human rights abuses, it imposes harsh financial and diplomatic consequences on the NIF government if it does not enter into a signed agreement with the organized leadership of the south within six months. And, it provides the areas of southern Sudan that are not controlled by the government with 100 million dollars in aid to be used for humanitarian and social services. The Sudan Peace Act has broad support in both the House and the Senate and the time for action is now.
Passage of this legislation would not only be an effective step towards peace and justice, it would bring hope to our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Sudan. And with this start, we help them reach for their destiny and make real for them the prayer we began with today: Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha. Spread over the people of Sudan, O God, the sukkah of your peace. A
We are here to help make that blessing real - and we will not stop until we have reached that goal.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .