US Jews leading Darfur rally planning

Demonstrators hope to pressure Bush administration to help end conflict.

darfur anti-america298.8 (photo credit: Associated Press)
darfur anti-america298.8
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thousands of people will be marching this Sunday in Washington, DC under a banner that carries a simple two-word demand: "Save Darfur." This is the name of the coalition organizing the rally, the first public action of its size intended to focus attention to the past three years of mass killing and ethnic cleansing carried out by the Sudanese government against the ethnically black farmers living in the Western region of Darfur. By most accounts, over 200,000 people have been massacred and two million displaced in a campaign that the US government and the United Nations two years ago decided to term genocide. The rally, and the coalition that is organizing it, is hoping to pierce the consciousness of Americans and pressure the Bush administration into taking a more active line to end the conflict and help the refugees of the violence - most of whom are living in degrading conditions in neighboring Chad. For this effort, the coalition has recruited major celebrities like George Clooney and Elie Wiesel to speak to those assembled. Though recent reports have indicated that the turnout might be lower than expected, organizers, while refusing to give a concrete number, believe it will be in "the tens of thousands." Little known, however, is that the coalition, which has presented itself as "an alliance of over 130 diverse faith-based, humanitarian, and human rights organization" was actually begun exclusively as an initiative of the American Jewish community. And even now, days before the rally, that coalition is heavily weighted with a politically and religiously diverse collection of local and national Jewish groups. A collection of local Jewish bodies, including the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, sponsored the largest and most expensive ad for the rally, a full-page in The New York Times on April 15. Though there are other major religious organizations, like the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, both of which have giant constituencies that number in the millions, these groups have not done the kind of extensive grassroots outreach that will produce numbers. Instead, the Jewish Community Relations Council, a national organization with local branches that coordinate communal activity all over America, has put on a massive effort to bus people to Washington on Sunday. Dozens of buses will be coming from Philadelphia and Cleveland. Yeshiva University alone, in upper Manhattan, has chartered eight buses. Besides the Jewish origins and character of the rally - a fact the organizers consistently played down in conversations with The Jerusalem Post - the other striking aspect of the coalition is the noted absence of major African-American groups like the NAACP or the larger Africa lobby groups like Africa Action. When asked to comment, representatives of both groups insisted they were publicizing the rally but had not become part of the coalition or signed the Unity Statement declaring Save Darfur's objectives. The coalition's roots go back to the spring of 2004 following a genocide alert, the first ever of its kind, issued by the United States Holocaust Museum. An emergency meeting was coordinated by the American Jewish World Service, an organization that serves as a kind of Jewish Peace Corps as well as an advocacy group for a variety of humanitarian and human rights issues. At the meeting, which was attended by numerous American Jewish organizations and a few other religious groups, it was decided that a coalition would be formed based on a statement of shared principles. After a year of programming that involved raising awareness about the genocide, the coalition came up with the idea for a rally in Washington. Planning began in the fall of 2005. David Rubenstein, the director or "coordinator," as he prefers it, of the coalition says that, given that the groups who started the coalition were Jewish, "it's not surprising that they had the numbers of more Jewish organizations in their rolodexes." He says that the Jewish community has been "extraordinarily responsive and are really providing the building for this thing," and yet he insists that the coalition has worked "very, very hard to be inclusive, to make sure there are people beyond the usual suspects." This is a sentiment echoed by Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service and one-time Manhattan borough president and Democratic mayoral candidate for New York City. The world service and Messinger personally have been at the forefront of planning for the rally. Much of the Jewish turnout has been a result of her lobbying efforts. She thinks the strong Jewish response has to do with the memories of Rwanda. "The Jewish community has probably had a higher level of lingering guilt over Rwanda than the average person," Messinger says. "And now learning about another genocide, I think people are beginning to understand that we are close to making a mockery of the words 'Never Again.'" Still, there are critics who say the heavy Jewish involvement might have deterred some other groups from joining. The fact that the aggressors in Darfur are Arab Muslims - though it should be said that the victims are also mostly Muslim - and are supported by a regime in Khartoum that is backed by the Arab League has made some people question the true motives of some of the Jewish organizations involved in the rally.