A few weeks ago my congregation was fortunate enough to host Ruth Messinger, executive director of American Jewish World Service, who spoke to us on the situation in Darfur and the obligations that our Jewish values–and recent history–demand of us. Besides the heartbreaking statistics and images (and there were plenty of those) the point that Ruth kept making was that, at least until recently, nobody has been paying attention. Sure, there’s a group of activists and organizations that are passionate about, and deeply engaged with, Darfur, but, in America at least, the humanitarian crisis gets hardly any exposure or discussion on a national level. Americans have always had difficulty getting concerned about events beyond our own borders; to the extent that we’re paying attention to foreign affairs these days, it’s largely Iraq that makes the headlines (sadly, with good reason). Yet, a genocide is being perpetrated before our eyes and we’re not looking.
What to do? AJWS has recently been shifting its energy into political activism and advocacy, recognizing that providing direct assistance while waiting for the rest of the world to start caring isn’t doing the trick. The Save Darfur Coalition, AJWS, and other organizations have begun to step up the pressure with rallies, divestment campaigns, and high-profile celebrity statements – including Mia Farrow, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney. Hey, it may be tacky but if it gets Americans to pay attention and demand action on Darfur, I’m all for it. The case of China that Rabbi Stern mentions is a perfect example: China, which has a veto in the United Nations security council, was protecting Sudan until Mia Farrow shamed them into softening their stance by labeling the 2008 Olympics in Beijing “the Genocide Olympics” on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. China changed its tune fast, not because it started caring about the people of Darfur, but because it cares about its reputation.
All of which is to say: before we can convince people to get involved, we have to cut through the noise and convince them to pay attention. Even if we’re not Mia Farrow or George Clooney we can do this by focusing on programs and events that raise awareness like attending rallies, writing letters to our local newspapers, wearing wristbands, and speaking out. I guess I thought that the deaths of 450,000 men, women, and children would be sufficient to get the world to pay attention but now it’s clear that the people of Darfur stand alone, unless we stand with them.
Read the Full Debate: What Should Jews Do About Darfur?