The slogan, “never again,” the redeeming lesson of the Holocaust, is turning into a farce in the African nation, as world leaders continue to find a dazzling array of excuses for inaction, including the obvious one: “It’s a complicated situation,” as cases of genocide always are.
Some Jewish organizations continue to speak out, but there are indications that the issue is fading, even as the killing continues. In the Jewish community, as elsewhere, the murkiness of the conflict and the lack of ready solutions have eroded activism.
One year ago, the Bush administration courageously labeled the treatment of Darfur villagers by Arab militias — sanctioned by the government in Khartoum — as “genocide.”
But apparently applying a label was enough for this country’s leaders; those tough words have been followed up by inaction and even moments of cooperation with the Sudanese government.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has waged a relentless campaign to open the nation’s eyes to Darfur, this week reported that the Bush administration helped gut a U.N. statement proclaiming that there is an “obligation” for countries to work to stop genocide where it is occurring. Instead, the final declaration suggested the need for “collective action” on a “case-by-case basis.”
In other words, the obligation to stop genocide applies only when it’s politically and diplomatically convenient. If it isn’t, well, too bad for the victims.
Admittedly, there are no easy options in Sudan. The nation is a cauldron of chaos, and it’s sometimes not clear who’s doing what to whom.
The United Nations is hamstrung by Security Council members that are doing profitable business with the Sudanese government and by weak, ineffective leadership. The African Union, which should be taking the lead, is overburdened and divided. The Europeans are concerned but vacillating. Washington is already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are myriad economic and geopolitical factors to consider.
In fact, genocide is always complicated when it’s happening. The Holocaust, for all its savage clarity, was hardly seen as black and white when the Allies were sifting through evidence of the unfolding horrors and trying to weigh it against their war aims.
For the Jewish community, the stakes are not immediate, but they are high nonetheless. After the Holocaust, Jews could console themselves that at least the death of millions would serve as a clear lesson that hatred must be fought before it produces mass killings, and actual genocide must be treated as the ultimate crime.
“Never again” was supposed to be a commandment for action, not a handy political slogan. But it quickly turned into the latter.
Over and over again, nations ignored new instances of genocide, or made concerned noises even as they pleaded the press of other priorities — much as the Allies offered reasonable-sounding, but ultimately shattering, excuses for not acting to slow down the machinery of the Holocaust.
People read about Cambodia’s killing fields, but shrugged their shoulders and said there was nothing they could do. They watched the butchery in Rwanda but dithered; then, they watched “Hotel Rwanda” and wept useless tears.
And now Darfur: Advocacy groups have been formed, wrist bracelets sold, outrage has been expressed. But still, the world won’t find a way to make it stop.
Many Jewish groups have spoken out on Darfur, but only a few, including the American Jewish World Service and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, have made it a priority. Many cite good reasons for not investing too heavily in the Darfur issue, including the press of Israel and domestic priorities. They also have some bad ones, starting with a paralyzing fear of criticizing the Bush administration at a critical moment in U.S.-Israel relations.
And as always, there is the internal debate over what constitutes a Jewish issue. Shouldn’t Jews be more worried about anti-Semitism in Ukraine or anti-Israel divestment campaigns?
But Darfur is a Jewish issue, because the Holocaust and its meaning have become central threads of Jewish existence in the modern world, spiritually and politically. And memorializing the victims is not enough.
The founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum understood this when they created the Committee on Conscience to serve as an early warning system for new genocides and prick the conscience of the nation. In the past few years, the committee has been doing that with vigor, documenting the horrors in Darfur and demanding action before it is too late once again.
With the United States and most other countries too busy, too divided and too uncertain, “too late” is fast approaching.
What the committee understands is this: For the memory of Holocaust victims to have universal meaning, their suffering must be used as a message to the world that the proper response to genocide isn’t waiting until the only thing left to do is light candles and erect memorials.
James D. Besser is the Washington correspondent for The Jewish Journal.