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Genocide Is Everybody's Issue

April 27, 2006 By:
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Illustration by Paul Tong

This week, Jews from around the country will be marching on Washington. But contrary to the paranoid fantasies of those anti-Semites who think the Jewish "Lobby" runs the country, the activists from a broad cross-section of Jewish groups won't be there to "influence" policy for the benefit of Israel.

Instead, Jewish individuals and groups will be standing up for a cause and a people that know little of Israel or the Jews: the inhabitants of the Darfur region of Sudan.

For years, the people of Darfur have been caught in the crossfire of a bitter civil war in that nation, which pits its Arab-dominated government against largely non-Arab tribes. Though numerous attempts to end the fighting have been made, the Khartoum government has used irregular forces to massacre Darfur civilians in a blatant attempt to depopulate the region.

Tens of thousands have died, with more lives in the balance unless these atrocities are ended.

It is, as the U.S. government, which has been less then speedy in its own reaction to the crisis, has stipulated, a clear case of genocide.

For years, the situation in the Sudan has flown beneath the radar of the international press, as well as the United Nations and many nongovernmental rights organizations.

Why?

The answer is simple.

Sudan is not a case of whites killing or oppressing blacks, as was the case in South Africa. Nor is a crime that can blamed on the Jews or Israel, the international community's favorite scapegoat.

Instead, it has largely been considered just another black- on-black crime, a category of offense that is, almost by definition, something the world has considered nothing worth getting worked up about.

While the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has devoted most of its energy and resolutions on demonizing Israel and denying its right of self-defense against terrorists, the Sudanese government has been slaughtering its own people with near impunity.

It's far from certain that this week's demonstration and the attending coverage it will generate will change any of this. But what is encouraging is that a broad-based coalition of religious and secular groups have been able to make a joint effort to alert the world to take action to save lives. Where several years ago, one heard more about Sudan from evangelical church groups, today it has become an issue on which liberal Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish World Service, have taken the lead.

And they, like many others, will be speaking out on Darfur by specifically invoking the legacy of the Holocaust.

Inevitably, there are - and will be - some who will deride this sort of Yom HaShoah observance. They will tell us that in a world in which anti-Semitism is on the rise, and in which Israel is still beset by terror and boycott, we should not squander any of our energy, let alone political capital, on Sudan, of all places.

The critics also worry about the hijacking of the Holocaust and its use as a metaphor for suffering, rather than an event rooted in a specific time, place and set of circumstances. They may tell us that a view of Holocaust education in which every instance of suffering or discrimination is seen as a precursor to another Shoah or its moral equivalent is moral idiocy.

And as far as that goes, they won't be completely wrong.

The promiscuous use of Holocaust metaphors has become a serious problem that has debased the very meaning of the term. Every international political conflict, let alone every ethnic or religious joke, is not a stepping-stone to another Holocaust.

Moreover, the Jewish impulse to universalize every element of the Jewish experience can often lead us to distort that history and disregard our own needs.

The debate that took place a decade ago (and which continues to some extent to this day) over the work of historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, whose book Hitler's Willing Executioners, illustrates this conundrum.

Goldhagen's thesis was that specific influences and circumstances created an "eliminationist" culture inside of Germany that made its people peculiarly likely to commit mass murder against the Jews. On its face, such a conclusion is fairly innocuous. After all, the Germans were the ones who perpetrated the Holocaust.

But the furious reaction to Goldhagen's book from a great many of those involved in Holocaust studies stemmed from their worry that the Shoah would be pigeonholed as a unique historic event, rather than held up as a universal lesson.

As one such scholar told me at the time, he feared Goldhagen's teachings would "strand the Holocaust in history."

But such a conclusion is unfounded. The circumstances that created the Shoah are not like any other genocide. Without 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism and Jewish powerlessness, as well as the development of a specific type of 20th-century secular German culture, it would not have been possible, let alone understandable.

The best way to ensure such an event does not recur involves the empowerment of the Jews - i.e., a State of Israel that can defend itself and other Jews against Jew-haters - and a change in Christian teachings about Jews, such as that promulgated by the Vatican in the last half-century.

Comparisons Can Be Made

But to say that is not to deny that other genocides, such as the example of the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1990s, are, in many ways, comparable to the Shoah. In its scale and sheer murderous intent to destroy a people, Rwanda proved another Holocaust. So was the Communist purge in Cambodia that destroyed millions of lives.

The idea that Jewish activists should refrain from speaking out on Sudan is simply illegitimate.

Those who remember the likes of Treblinka, Dachau and Auschwitz are obligated to speak up when ethnic or religious minorities are subjected to massacre. Doing so doesn't mean that the 6 million Jewish men, women and children remain a statistic to be universalized. Rather, they are a reminder that while each story of horror, murder and suffering is completely different, decent human beings must do more than merely look on impotently.

So it is no contradiction in terms for those of us who worry about Jews who seem to support every cause but that of their own people are also joining in the chorus urging action by both the United States and the international community on Darfur.

Doing so doesn't mean we care any less about the genocidal threats against our own people coming from the lips of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority or the Islamic leaders of Iran.

Instead, it means that we remember that when Jews were alone during the 1940s, few spoke up and virtually none tried to help our slaughtered innocents. The memory of that sad fact should be branded in our consciousness forever to remind us of both the obligation to defend ourselves and the need to speak up when others are in danger.

The uniqueness of the Shoah is not in question.

But if we fail to act against other genocides, it is doubtful that we can say we truly understand our own history.

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