Darfur and Caring

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Since no one else posted, I will offer a few thoughts in the waning hours of a weekend spent mostly struggling to write a fair final for my law school students.

Our reaction to, and involvement in, the ongoing tragedy in Darfur is complex, and might just allow for multiple defensible positions. (I have mine, but suspect that reasonable people will differ. Needless to say, I am proud that my immediate superior at my day job journeyed to the Sudan two years ago, at the invitation of the heads of the government, who were looking for a way out of their impasse, and some Western acceptance if they succeeded. He negotiated with them with his yarmulke atop his head. It almost worked, but then the Arab Muslims decided to start slaughtering black Muslims in a different region, rather than black Christians as they had been doing. The deal collapsed.)

I have no argument with those who lived near Washington and decided not to attend the rally on Sunday, arguing that no human being can make every just and pressing cause his or her own, and that they had other causes that needed attending to. I have no argument if – and only if – the next time they tell their children about the Holocaust, and tell them how the entire world abandoned the Jews and did not raise a hue and a cry to save them, that they consider their own reaction to the deaths of literally millions of human beings.

I have no argument with those who traveled to Washington and participated, and made a point of flaunting their Jewishness so that others would take heed of their care and concern. I have no argument if – and only if – they can offer some set of guidelines to determine when the parochial needs of our own community, and of our own avodah of Torah and mitzvos, must be put before the needs of others. (I completely reject the activity of some rabbis last Tzom Gedalyah to turn that fast day into a day of remembrance for Darfur in order to make it more “relevant” to their congregants.)

I am disappointed in a major way with two groups.

I have no easy way to understand or accept the rather minimal participation of African-Americans in the rally on Sunday, and the smaller rally here in Los Angeles last week. I just don’t get it.

I am disappointed at those within our own community who gave the rally no thought at all, and are thinking about it for the first time as they are reading these lines. If you struggled with the issue – more power to you. If you were oblivious to it, if you did not even frame a position in your own mind to the ongoing slaughter of huge numbers of people, I am disappointed. Not participating for good reason is defensible. Not caring is not.

People will surely take offense at this summary judgment. Allow me to introduce a few lines written by one of the giants of the 20th century in my defense. (It is offered in loose translation as the effects of the last cup of coffee have largely worn off, after giving a late night shiur on Maharal. Mistakes are hereby anticipated.)

Love of all human beings must be alive within a person’s heart and soul. This means the love of every individual, and the love for all nations, the desire for their advancement and their firm standing in both spiritual and material senses. Hatred must be reserved for the evil [i.e. not the evildoers] and for corruption. It is impossible to arrive at the elevation of spirit inherent in the cry, “Give thanks to Hashem, declare His Name, make His acts known among the peoples” without an inner love, from the depths of the heart and soul, to do good to all nations, to develop their resources and to bring happiness to their lives. It is this capacity that allows for the the spirit of Mashiach to take hold of the Jewish people…Love of all humans requires much attention, to extend it to its proper limits, against the superficiality that sometimes surfaces from an incomplete understanding of Torah texts and of common decency. It sometimes seems that there is opposition (or at least equanimity) in these areas to the love which in fact must constantly suffuse all parts of the soul…It must spread to all people without exception, despite differences in ideology and religion and belief, and despite differences in race and climate…

Most will have guessed that the author of these lines was Rav Kook, zt”l (Midos HaRayah, Ahavah, 5, 10). It is not at all surprising that he goes on in the next paragraphs to speak of the even greater love we must have for those special people of excellence (talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), community leaders) who make the Light of Hashem more visible to the rest of us.

He knew how to balance universalism and particularism. The rest of us should have the merit to at least try!

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23 Responses

  1. janice kamenir-Reznik says:

    I am confused about what appears to be a disparaging comment by Rabbi Adlerstein about the Teens Against Genocide rally in Los Angeles on April 23. While that rally was small (some 200 high school students), it was completely planned and executed by a small band of high school students, who even took it upon themselves to raise the funds to pay for the rally. They did a great job and should be commended for their initial foray into activism on this issue. The LA Jewish Community has been highly mobilized on the issue of the genocide in Darfur. Rabbi Schulweis and I started Jewish World Watch which now has a constituency of more than 40 synagogues in LA. Together, we have had more than 300 programs this year alone about Darfur in LA and we have raised more than $400,000 with which we have built 2 medical clnics and 20 water wells in Darfur. As for the questions raised about why others (i.e. African Americans) aren’t doing more to protest the genocide, I just don’t see that as a very Jewish question. The question is, “what is the right thing for us to be doing?” African Americans are currently preoccupied with poverty issues and issues related to gangs, education and the like. Were we absorbed with those survival type issues I doubt that we would be in the forefront of a more global movement to help people thousands of miles away. Finally, I think that we often make inapt parallels in which we assume that Black Americans feel about Africa (all of it) the way that we Jews feel about Israel. This is simply not the case.

  2. irwin L. says:

    Excellent comments. I am reminded of the famous story in a variety of versions. A travelling Rabbi came to the Chofetz Chaim after a trip to South Africa and the Chofetz CHaim asked about the situation for the black community there. When asked why he wanted to know, his response was that every event was a sign to us of G-d’s displeasure with us. While I can’t complain about an individual making the decision not to march, Institutionally, there should be comment. The question of why the black community does not respond properly is a proof to the Chortkover Rav’s statement regarding the comment of Adam vs. Ish. We are used to collective pain, others aren’t.

  3. Tzvi says:

    “Sim Z:Another point is that if the US/UN gets involved that would mean killing Sudanese and JanJaweed so that they don’t kill the Darfurians who started killing them to begin with.

    Ori: I don’t think there’s moral equivalence here. There is a difference between the thug[s] that kills a farmer, rape his wife, and enslaves their children, and the soldier who shoots the thug[s].”

    Tzvi: Fully developing and applying Ori’s analogy, In Darfur the children are killing the thugs (and potential collaborators?) and the soldiers (UN/US) would be killing the children. Is that logically correct? If so, is that morally correct?

  4. Sarah M says:

    There seems to be some confusion about what is going on in Sudan in specific, and Darfur in particular.
    THere has been a civil war between the North and South regions for years, which is in the process of being mediated by negotiations. WHen these negotiations started, the Western Region of Darfur felt that its needs had been ignored, and a rebel group attacked a Sudanese military barracks. Yes, this part of the conflict was started by Darfurians, but there is no excuse for collective punishment against an entire region, old people and children, women and men.
    more information can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darfur#The_present_Darfur_crisis and here http://www.ajws.org/index.cfm?section_id=2&sub_section_id=2

  5. Sim Z says:

    “True, for actual rebels. Not so true for people who happened to have the same skin color as the rebels, or be related to them.”

    That is true, however the assumption is that the villages that are being destroyed are supporting the rebellion, at least tacitly. King Shaul wiped out the entire village of Nov because they harbored David, who was wanted for rebellion. He even killed the women and children and people who never actually saw David. Giving support to a rebellion makes you guilty of the same thing.

    Now I am not saying that what they are doing is good, but if the UN peacekeepers come in they will choose sides as they always do and will not just sit around smilingly protecting civilians.
    Even if they did, what would happen when the first civilian walked into the mall with a suicide belt and killed 20 Sudanese? Does that change the way you determine what a civilian is?

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    IIRC, Ms. Rush has written a superb book on the events that have led up to the current carnage in Darfur.While she can speak with authority on the issue , its etiology and current circumstances, and while we should show empathy to this tragedy, that does not IMO end the inquiry as to whether it is a Jewish cause in any fashion as opposed to a brutal tribal war.

    Moreover, despite her assumptions to the contrary, Jews in Europe were the victims of both eccesliatical and secular based anti Semitism , which ultimately led to the Holocaust. The uncomfortable facts are that no other religious or ethnic minority was ever subjected to such a reign and still emerged able to rebuild itself at an albeit horrific cost. I am not sure if this means that we have a “monopopoly of suffering” but nothing in European or US history remotely approaches the Jewish capacity to endure suffering and rebuild their society throughout history. I can attribute that only to the fact that Jewish survival depended on Jewish literacy, a few shtadlanim and working in those professions that were despised by our oppressors.

    That would be the most important lesson that any victim of Darfur or a similar based civil war could take-rebuild and develope the institutions of society and invest your future in education, health , political and economic change instead of a static police state. One wonders why the demonstrations were focused on the US. Why not the UN-which is the center of multinationalism as a philosophy and which has woefully failed in any attempts to rein in the Sudanese government?

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    I stand by my comments, as explained by Eliezer Barzilai. Since the end of colonization of Africa after WW2 by European nations, Africa has been beset by almost non-stop tribal violence, hunger, one-party rule, economic stagnation, World Bank debts that show no evidence of ever being paid in the distant future and rampant AIDS that its oligarchal rulers such as Mugabe , etc have placed on the western world ala a 21st Century’s “white man’s burden.” A recent article in Commentary pointed out that the butchery in Sudan, which is how I referred to , is a tragedy of immense proportions, but hardly a one case phenomenon.

    Yet, I think that it by no means approaches the uniqueness of the Holocaust in scale and proportion. In contrast, I note that some correspondents used the fact that they are descendants of survivors and some elementary notions of Jewish belief to make their case. The facts are that neither fact is necessarily determinative of whether the events call for a Jewish response. That is exactly what can be called liberal guilt and another example of how not to draw lessons from the Holocaust-which was perpetrated solely against Jew with the objective of rendering the world Judenrein. The notion that the Holocaust requires us to intervene and protest against every local civil war and its civilian damage should not be confused with and considered a moral lesson of the Holocaust, which Hitler viewed as a basic war aim, even if it meant diverting trains, etc from the war effort. Yes-there is butchery in the Sudan but IMO I believe it is the height of PC liberal guilt over the uniquely Jewish experience of the Holocaust to compare Darfur or any similar contemporary events with the events of 1933-45. I believe that Jews could engage in far better and worthwhile avenues of showing that Hitler failed by addressing themselves first to Jewish concerns such as Jewish illiteracy, poverty and charitable causes, all of which need our support, and then turning to universal issues.

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Sim Z:Another point is that if the US/UN gets involved that would mean killing Sudanese and JanJaweed so that they don’t kill the Darfurians who started killing them to begin with.

    Ori: I don’t think there’s moral equivalence here. There is a difference between the thug that kills a farmer, rapes his wife, and enslaves their children, and the soldier who shoots the thug.

    The assumption is that a US/UN force will protect the civilian populations on both sides, and fight the thugs on both sides.

    Sim Z:The fact that a lot of people are getting killed does not mean that it is not there own fault and does not mean that we should protest. Rebellion against a government is dealt with by death in every society.

    True, for actual rebels. Not so true for people who happened to have the same skin color as the rebels, or be related to them.

  9. Sim Z says:

    Another point is that if the US/UN gets involved that would mean killing Sudanese and JanJaweed so that they don’t kill the Darfurians who started killing them to begin with.

    How is that justice?

  10. Sim Z says:

    I think people are ignoring a major difference between this situation and the Holocaust. This war was started by the people being slaughtered. They have been offered agreements, by which the tragic killing of their people would be stopped, and they have refused.
    I’m not saying that the agreements were good for them, I’m saying that in this case they have an opportunity to say, maybe our cause doesn’t stand a chance and therefore we should back down and take what pieces we can until a better opportunity arises.

    In the Holocaust, nobody gave the Jews an option to stop the killing if they would… In fact even those that tried by converting to a different religion got thrown into the gas chambers along with the rest fo the Jews.

    The fact that a lot of people are getting killed does not mean that it is not there own fault and does not mean that we should protest. Rebellion against a government is dealt with by death in every society.

    I’m not saying that we should hope that they get killed. We should certainly do what we can to get the rebels to agree to stop rebelling, but we can’t call this a holocaust or give them reason to not come to an agreement with the Sudanese because they think if enough of them get killed they’ll get what they want from the US/UN rushing in to save them.

  11. Yoel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein — I thank you for providing us with the wisdom and outlook of Rav Kook. I was moved by the material and have reread it several times. In regards to the Dafur situation I have had two encounters which are examples of the balance of universalism and particularism that Rav Kook covered.
    The first one was a local one in Los Angeles when Rabbi Kenefsky and Congregation B’nai David – Judea hosted an evening, with other participants who were not Jewish, concerning the Dafur situation. There was a nice mix in the audience, but I was disappointed that more local people were not in attendance.
    The second one was last week when I was in Washington D.C. and was able to visit the Holocaust Museum. It was an unforgetable tour. There were many goups around the building and in the lobby, and several of them were having a good time and quite vocal. When we went on the tour there was an unreal silence amongst those going through the tour. One of the most impressive exhibits was the one the Holocaust Museum has concerning Dafur. I was able to view on a screen several news accounts that explained in depth what was happening in Dafur over the past several years, and the current situation there. There were also available viewing areas with maps and other materials, including computers to find further information about the plight of the residents of Dafur. It seemed amazing to quite a few of the non-Jewish visitors that the Holocaust Museum had such a complete exhibit explaining the Dafur situation.

  12. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    I think that Steve may have meant that there is a difference between the murder of innocents and a case where who is butchering whom only depends on who is better armed today, where either side would happily murder the other if only given the opportunity. Perhaps it’s my ignorance, but South Africa’s experience seems to be astonishingly incongruous on a continent where mutual viciousness is the constant fact of life, where “ish es rei’eihu chayim b’la’o” (homo homini lupus est).

  13. Sarah M says:

    Good point, Steve. Lets wait till the death toll reaches 6 million, then take action.
    But all sarcasm aside, if we say that every human being was created b’ztelem Elokim, in the image of God, and that human life has infinite value “One who saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world,” then holocaust or no holocaust comparisons we can’t sit by and let it happen.
    The rally might be over but the genocide is not. Spend five minutes calling your senators and congressmen, or write them a letter. Donate to the Save Darfur advocacy campaign, or to the immediate relief work of the American Jewish World Service that is providing food and health care in Sudan.

  14. Katie B. says:

    Steve Brizel writes:
    “However,at the risk of sounding not PC, I have my doubts whether the butchery, etc that has been going on for years there is comparable to the Holocaust.”

    I am sure that is what people said during World War II. Something to the effect of “I have my doubts whether the butchery, etc. that has been going on for years there is comparable to the Armenians.” I don’t think this is about being PC, this is about valuing life; politics aside. At what point does the butchery become bad enough for us to care and take action?

  15. Ben Greenberg says:

    Steve –

    I am simply shocked at your comment. Perhaps, you were not fully thinking of the implications of your statement? You admit that the events in Sudan are ‘horrific’ but doubt whether or not it is comparable to the Holocaust. Do six million people need to be killed before your moral conscience is woken? Do the perpetrators need to build gas chambers and crematoria before your take concern in what is happening? Is it not enough that hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered in an attempt to make the Darfur region of Sudan, ‘schvartzrein’? Is it not enough that 2 million people, perhaps more, are displaced in refugee camps without adequete amounts of water, food or education for the children? Is it not enough that women and girls are subjected to rape and torture (i.e. branding) on a daily basis as a method of warfare?

    I am a descendent of those who were displaced due to the events of 1939-1945 in Europe. My family suffered the loss of dozens of cousins who did not or were not able to leave before the soldiers of death made their way to their towns and villages. My family story is not unique, most American Jews as descendants of Jews from Europe, share a similar story. How could a people whose collective national memory still is in pain due to the attempted extermination, mass murder and rape of their own people in the modern era, not feel the pain and the duty to do what they possibly can to assist when another defenseless people are enduring a similar tragedy?

    I would find it impossible to relate to my children the sin of silence of my family’s neighbors in Europe and how that led to a large extent to their murder, if faced with a situation to raise my voice when another people are facing extermination, and I do not. Could you?

  16. Amanda Rush says:

    I would say that the butchery going on in the Sudan is every bit related to the holocaust.
    Just on the surface, both were, (and, in the case of the Sudan), are attempts to wipe out whole peoples.
    Exactly what does it take for something to be considered comparable to the Holocaust?
    Millions are dying there too.
    Maybe not millions of our own, but millions nonetheless.
    We Jews don’t hold a monopoly on suffering of this magnitude, nor should we.
    We should, however, be more empathetic, because we know what it’s like.

  17. YM says:

    I just checked the OU website and the OU and RCA issued a letter praising President Bush for his strong efforts to help the situation in Sudan/Darfur. It apparently was issued recently, since it refers to the Passover season.

    Not exactly a call to arms.

  18. YM says:

    Thank you for blogging about this topic. Last week, I sent an email to the moderators of another blog I frequently read, asking if there was a frum viewpoint about this topic. As the other commenters notes reveal, the situation in Sudan is not clear-cut, but it did and does concern me that as a community, we are invisible on a situation that might be a genocide. I absolutely feel like we need our gedolim and organizations to acertain and determine what is going on there and to recommend to the community at large what our position should be on this issue. I wonder whether Agudath Israel of America has a position on this? The O.U.? The RCA? Any prominent individual or organization?

  19. Larry says:

    I attended yesterday’s rally in Washington and, like Rabbi Adlerstein, was surprised and puzzled by the relatively small proportion of African-American participation. I was equally disturbed by the relatively small level of participation by the Chareidi community, a community that suffered disproportionately during the Holocaust, but was heartened by the widespread support demonstrated by all other segments of our Jewish community (and in particular the Modern Orthodox).

    In his comment (above), Ori stated that “[u]nfortunately, marches and protests are not likely to solve anything. The solution to a problem like Darfur, if one exists, is likely to be military.” The rally organizers did not necessarily disagree: one purpose of the protest was to compel the US government to use its influence to see that an effective, multinational military presence is brought to bear on the eveil and genocidal government now aiding the slaughter in Darfur.

    But there were other beneficial effects to the protest, as well. By our mere presence, we were demonstrating that those qualities of mercy, love and compassion that the Torah seeks to instill are still alive in our world. By our raised voices, we were crying out to HaShem in emulation of Avraham Avinu, whose cries were pleasing to and sought by HaShem even despite their ultimate lack of success in the case of S’dom and Amorah. By our numbers, we were ensuring that the Darfur tragedy will not recede to the realm of yesterday’s news. And by our unified prayers, we were utilizing the most effective tool known to the Jew in support of the accomplishment of our mission and objective. “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven choreen l’hitbatel mimenah” — we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    Look at it this way. The events in the Sudan are horrific. However,at the risk of sounding not PC, I have my doubts whether the butchery, etc that has been going on for years there is comparable to the Holocaust.

  21. Gershon Seif says:

    It would be more likely to happen if some of our Jewish publications offered updates on world events somewhere else other than a 3 lines small tidbit on page 92. The very structuring of the news that way in certain newspapers sends the mesage to our kehilla that such news is no more than interesting things you might be interested in, or might not be.

  22. Bob Miller says:

    What new strategy, that is, one not already being pursued by the US government, would end the slaughter in Darfur?

  23. Ori Pomerantz says:

    “African Americans” are not very African. In most cases, their ancestors were kidnapped and brought here so long ago that they have no special connection to Africa, any more that I have one to Lithuania. They related to the Apartheid, but that was because it appeared similar to racism in the US (I don’t know enough to judge if it really was or not).

    Unfortunately, marches and protests are not likely to solve anything. The solution to a problem like Darfur, if one exists, is likely to be military. Put some kind of reliable army on the ground, and execute as many thugs as necessary until the rest realize that slaughtering civilians does not mean you get their land and stuff – it means you get killed yourself.

    How many people here are willing to enlist, go through the rigors of military training, and then spend a tour of duty in Darfur, which will probably include getting shot at? How many are even willing to pay higher taxes to support expanded military that will be required to police it?