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Will Support Stay Firm for Darfur?

September 14, 2006 By:
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The people of Darfur, Sudan, have been victims of a genocide there since 2003.

In April, they came out in droves. They raised their voices for the victims, shouting "never again" for Africa. The American Jewish activists who descended upon Washington that spring day came to assist a distant people they knew little -- and almost everything -- about.

But just how long-lasting -- how deep -- do the ties between American Jews and Sudanese genocide victims run?

As the days and now months since April's Save Darfur rally tick by, a number of local and national Jewish leaders have begun to wonder whether the kind of fervor displayed in D.C. can be replicated.

The answer may present itself on Sept. 17, when a second Darfur rally -- to be held in Central Park in New York -- will test American Jewish commitment to the cause.

Like its predecessor, the event is being organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, a Jewish-initiated group of 150 faith- and humanitarian-based organizations.

A Global Effort
While the last rally focused on American interventionism in Darfur, this one will challenge the complacency of the international community. Timed to coincide with the 61st meeting of the United Nation's General Assembly, it will draw attention to the need for a U.N. peacekeeping force in the region.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Canadian parliamentarian Dr. Irwin Cotler, Amnesty International U.S.A. director Larry Cox and Sudan expert John Prendergast are among the speakers slated to speak at this point.

Sept. 17 -- tagged a "Global Day for Darfur" -- will also include related events across the United States, and in cities as far-flung as Toronto; Moscow; Paris; London; Cairo, Egypt; Kigali, Rwanda; Abuja, Nigeria.

Though planning for these demonstrations is moving ahead, some worry that Jewish activism on Darfur, which instigated so much of what happened in April, has diminished.

The American Jewish World Service, which has been at the forefront of orchestrating Jewish Darfur involvement since co-founding the Save Darfur Coalition in 2004, said it counted 400 Jewish buses to D.C. in April.

It has 70 bound for New York this month.

Seven of them will hail from Philadelphia, agency officials said, citing groups from Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim; Congregation Beth Am; the Darfur Alert Coalition; Congregation Mishkan Shalom; Habinom Dror youth group; and the Philadelphia City Controller's Office.

Some blame the numerical downturn on the rally's poor timing, which comes during the busy back-to-school season.

Sarah Eidelson, an 11th-grader at Akiba Hebrew Academy and president of the school's human-rights club, stressed this point in explaining student mobilization, or lack thereof.

While Eidelson said that 100 Akiba students and faculty members -- roughly one-third of the student body -- rode chartered buses to the April rally, the school has not made any travel arrangements for the September event.

And while last year's students raised $1,200 selling Save Darfur T-shirts, this year's club members are "still sort of getting started," she said. "For the last rally, we were in school for awhile before then. There was a lot of prep.

"Now, we just sort of jump back into school, and the rally's in a week."

Others note the fact that the event falls in the most frenetic month on the Jewish calendar.

Elana Shaw, program director for the Germantown Jewish Centre, cited this overlap as the primary reason why the center, which filled two buses to D.C. in April, is not providing transportation this time around.

"For us, we just made a decision that there was a lot of staff involvement in organizing, and we couldn't do it this time," said Shaw. "It took too much effort that we needed to be spending on the High Holidays."

In addition to scheduling conflicts, world events have had a hand in shifting the focus away from Darfur.

Darfur Alert Coalition Vice President Jim Remsen blamed the "false encouragement" of May's Darfur peace agreement.

Though one warring faction signed terms for a cease-fire, two major groups did not, and the violence continues unabated.

"Darfur's dropped out of the news, even though it shouldn't have," he said. "It's not like we did Darfur, enough already. The crisis is really at a disastrous precipice."

Though Darfur may not have made many headlines this summer, another topic of paramount importance to the American Jewish community did.

Amy Blum, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council's Center for Holocaust Awareness, said that she couldn't help but notice how, at least initially, Israel's war with Hezbollah preoccupied American Jews.

Blum, who's serving as a point person for Philadelphia's Jewish rally, said that presented a challenge to Darfur activists.

"It was like, 'How can we be doing this now when our own people are at war?' "

Gitta Zomorodi, a senior policy associate with the AJWS, also conceded that the summer conflict "absolutely drew attention in the Jewish community."

But she said she was "really impressed" by the way American Jews "held on to the Darfur issue."

"There's definitely a level of commitment there," she said. "I'm just personally impressed that the Jewish community can have these multiple focuses and not let up."

Zomorodi also noted that the Sept. 17th head count should not be the ultimate barometer by which to judge Jewish involvement on Darfur. She pointed out that activists continue to be involved in other ways, including meeting with Congress, making phone calls and working to educate the community.

In addition, she pointed out that the rally's Jewish presence will not be diminished by a larger showing of non-Jewish groups. Event organizers are working to boost the day's diversity factor with bilingual advertising and forums in New York ethnic neighborhoods.

"The broader the movement, the stronger the coalition we have," affirmed Zomorodi. "The more groups we bring to this, the more likely we are to get attention and response from elected officials."


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