Muslims, Sikhs, evangelical Christians, Catholics and Unitarian Universalists were among the estimated 15,000 people who attended the "Save Darfur" rally on the National Mall. All claimed that the issue of stopping mass murder took precedence over other social and political issues of the day.
Jews clearly appeared to comprise a sizable portion of the crowd, with Jewish community centers, synagogues, Hillel chapters and the major religious movements all filling numerous buses with men, women and even kids to attend the rally.
All told, more than 10 Jewish organizational buses came from the Philadelphia area, with people representing, among other groups, the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey; the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel; Har Zion Temple and Congregation Beth Am Israel, both in Penn Valley; Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park; and Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.
"I pray that our efforts are going to make a difference," said Rabbi Lisa Malik of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown, which sent its own contingent to Washington. "Now I'm interested to see, what's the president going to do? What's Congress going to do?"
Nationally, the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement sent more than 200 teens to Washington, complete with signs painted by hand.
At the rally, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was the first of roughly 60 activists, religious leaders, politicians and entertainers to take to the podium during the nearly four-hour-long event.
"Silence helps the killer, never his victims," he said, with the U.S. Capitol Building as his backdrop. "Darfur is the world's capital of human suffering. Darfur deserves to live; we are its only hope."
Trying to Raise Awareness
According to the Save Darfur Coalition, more than 400,000 people – mostly non-Arab Muslims – have perished and more than 2 million have been made homeless in Darfur by a campaign of government-sponsored violence that began in 2003. The government in Khartoum has repeatedly denied charges of state-sponsored genocide, and has blamed rebel groups for much of the violence; nevertheless, international observers have singled out Sudanese leaders for backing the nomadic Arab Janjaweed militia in its war against the non-Arab nativist African population.
To make matters worse, some 3 million refugees in Darfur and neighboring Chad who have fled other conflicts and famines may now face starvation: The U.N. World Food Program announced last week that it was cutting rations in half due to a shortfall in donations.
Many have pinned their hopes on peace talks in Nigeria between representatives of the Sudanese government and rebel factions, but according to news reports, the rebels rejected a proposed deal. It was unclear where the negotiations would go from there.
Rally organizers said they were simply trying to raise awareness of the issue, but many of the speakers offered tangible suggestions, from pursuing divestment campaigns against the Sudanese government to sending a U.N. peacekeeping force to the region.
Participants in the demonstration had their own ideas as well: "Twenty-thousand well-armed troops could make the difference. It would be enough to stop the Janjaweed in their tracks," stated 54-year-old Ed Moses, as he was riding the Metro from RFK Stadium, where many of the buses had parked, to the rally site.
A member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Moses admitted that such a move could be risky since it is believed that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has directed his followers to travel to Sudan and attack such a force if it were sent.
But he also added that then the world would have to act – or else it would have another Rwanda on its hands. In 1994, nearly 1 million Rwandans died in state-sponsored massacres that prompted European intervention.
"What good is apologizing afterwards?" he said.
Lexi Bell, a 17-year-old student at Abington Senior High School, had heard about Darfur at school and decided to attend the rally. She made two "Stop the genocide" T-shirts – one for herself and one for her father. Both are members of P'nai Or Religious Fellowship in Philadelphia, a Jewish Renewal congregation.
"If more people became aware of it – if more people knew what was happening – then that alone would make great strides to stop the genocide," said the teenager.
In a city where turnout at political rallies can often exceed 100,000, Sunday's event was decidedly low-key.
Organizers seemed to know well in advance that they would not get those kinds of numbers. Still, few in the crowd were complaining.
"The truth is I'm thrilled with the turnout," said 57-year-old Joel Fish, a member of the Germantown Jewish Centre, which sent two buses. "This is large enough to make a powerful and important statement."
Standing on the lawn toward the back of the crowd, Fish said that it was the first rally he had attended in Washington since protesting the Vietnam war more than 30 years ago. After hearing American Jewish World Service president and executive director Ruth Messenger – who has helped place Darfur center-stage on the organized Jewish community's agenda – speak at his synagogue several weeks ago, he decided to bring his 17-year-old son Eli down for the event.
"I've talked a good game, but I felt I needed to start backing it up with action," he said.
Sitting on the grass awaiting the start of the rally and sporting a Boston Red Sox hat in Hebrew, 55-year-old Boston-native Steve Burman said that Jews have an obligation to speak out against genocide, wherever it may occur.
"As a Jew who was not alive during the time of the Holocaust, I think it's time that people don't just say 'never again,' but do something about it," said Burman, now of Rockland County, N.Y. "In Darfur, we're talking about starvation, forced exodus, rape and murder."
Taking a break from snapping pictures, Moses Lomayat, a 43-year-old Sudanese native who now lives in Kansas City, Mo., could not believe that so many who had no connection to his homeland turned out to support its people.
"The government of Sudan is a terrorist government," declared Lomayat, originally from the southern part of Sudan.
A civil war between the northern and southern portions of the country ended in 2005, claimed an estimated 2 million lives and displaced millions more, according to most news reports.
And as a result, Lomayat said that he "had no choice but to flee."
"Save the people of Darfur!" he pleaded. "Please don't be afraid to act."