Why Should We Care About Sudan?
By Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
This op-ed was published in several regional Jewish papers in August and September 2004
Why do Jews care about Sudan? It sounds like a strange question, yet we hear it all the time. While the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is occupied with relief efforts and the American Jewish World Service and US Holocaust Memorial Museum are coordinating efforts to raise awareness about this travesty, others are asking “why”? There are no Jews in Sudan, there’s been killing and unrest there for decades, and we can’t get involved in every civil war around the globe, so why should we care about one group of Muslims killing another group of Muslims in Africa?
The answer lies within our own experience. Jews empathize with the victims of ethnic cleansing because we have been victims ourselves. We seek to aid the weak and the desperate refugees because not so long ago, a few righteous individuals helped us -- and because too many others did not.
Some would have our country avoid engagement in Sudan because it is too far away, too complex or too dangerous. We know that it is far away… but also as close as the next act of genocide that goes unchallenged. We know that the violence taking place in Sudan is as complex as ancient ethnic rivalries… and as simple as murder for land. And we know that it is dangerous… as dangerous as living in a world that permits the annihilation of a people and turns away from the suffering of innocents.
In a few weeks, the Jewish community will gather together to observe the Days of Awe, including the “martyrology” – a litany of remembrance of the martyrs of our people. As we memorialize our ancestors brutally murdered throughout the ages, there are many lessons to be considered from the darkest moments of our past -- some cynical and some uplifting.
The government of Sudan has learned a lot from history. It has learned that it is rather simple to get away with murder under the guise of civil unrest. The Sudanese have learned how to instill hatred and breed distrust, and that it is a short leap from there to dehumanization and annihilation. They have learned that neighbors and friends can become enemies overnight and that sane people can be convinced to do insane things. They learned how to use execution, torture, and terror to change their maps and their population.
Yet, there are other lessons to be learned from our history. Lessons about courage and integrity. Lessons about what it takes to remain righteous when enveloped in evil. Lessons about the kind of world we wish to create for our children and future generations. We know that our actions today will be cause for honor, or for shame, in the next generation. And we have learned that, as Elie Wiesel has taught, the greatest evil of all is our indifference. As he has said about the world’s response to the atrocities in Sudan – it is not worthy of us.
Jewish tradition commands "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." In our global village, we are all neighbors. We must not remain bystanders as children become targets for soldiers. We must not look away when women are raped and tortured as part of a military strategy. We must not offer empty promises as people are terrorized into leaving their homes. We must not be silent accomplices as aggressors are rewarded for their brutality. And we must not wait patiently for the politicians and diplomats to debate protocol while people are being annihilated.
How we handle the Sudan debacle will be a test of which lessons the world has learned from the past. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda were manifestations of 20th Century failures to learn those lessons. What of the 21st Century? Is humanity doomed to a cycle of brutality and destruction? Or will we be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eyes and say that we were NOT indifferent, that we reached out to the oppressed, we defended the weak, and we remained true to that which is most noble in the human heart.
These are the questions that should consume the public debate about Sudan and challenge all Americans as the nightly news brings genocide into our living rooms.