Of course there are aspects to the Holocaust that set it apart from other genocides. This claim, however, is largely academic. At the end of the day, there is nothing to be accomplished by insisting upon what makes our suffering different from all suffering. What is more critical is what all genocides have in common. As the great Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer has written:
Each genocide is different, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the similarities. Foremost among them is the suffering of the victims. There is no better or worse genocide, just as there is no better or worse murder, no better or worse torture. There is no scale to measure suffering. Jews, Armenians or Poles who were martyred and murdered all suffered the same. (Jewish Forward, May 13, 2005)
Underlying this question is one of the more unwelcome phenomena in Jewish life: our tendency to tend to cling tenaciously to the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. We assert and reassert that the Nazi war against the Jews was different from other genocides. We insist that it was more extreme, more complete, more insidious in its conception and execution. As empathetic as we Jews may generally be, many of us recoil when we hear of another atrocity even compared to the Holocaust. It has become our untouchable event – the evil against which nothing can ever be compared.
When we stubbornly insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust, it can easily numb us to the crimes that are committed against others. After all, the logical conclusion of this thinking is to believe that nothing done to anyone else could ever be as horrible or as wrong as what was perpetrated against us. And as a result, we end up closing our hearts to the evil perpetrated in our own day. Or worse: we use our own pain as a weapon against the outside world.
It is encouraging that organizations such as American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have provided important leadership for the Save Darfur Coalition. Indeed, the growing participation of Jewish voices in the protest against the Darfur genocide provides hopeful evidence that the Jewish community may have turned a critical corner on this issue. If so, this would be a welcome development. When it comes to protesting genocide, Jews, of all people, should be leading the charge.
Question #2: Among the myriad of human rights crises currently being perpetrated in the world today, why are we spending so much time and attention focusing on Darfur?
It is true that no small number of global abuses currently cry out for our attention. But it is important to bear in mind that human rights abuses do not occur in a vacuum. For instance, if one logs on to the websites of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International to learn more about the Darfur crisis, one invariably learns about war crimes in the Northern Uganda, Burnudi and the Congo. At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience website, one finds that in addition to Darfur, Southern Sudan and Chechnya are on their”standing agenda” for genocide watch.
Activists may often compartmentalize issues for good tactical reasons, but in truth these issues are fundamentally related to one another. The more we educate ourselves and raise our consciousness about one specific issue, the more we invariably learn about how these issues are fundamentally interconnected. Whereas it might seem that working on one specific cause might naturally exclude work on other worthy causes, the opposite is actually true: activism tend to expand exponentially.
One example from my own congregation may serve to illuminate this point more fully. Our Global AIDS Task Force recently sponsored a World AIDS Day program in which we heard from a local doctor, Dr. Marge Cohen, about a new Rwandan Women’s AIDS clinic. Although it is well known that this pandemic has been decimating communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a marked increase in HIV/AIDS among Rwandan women. Why? It is due in large part to the widespread and systematic rape of Tutsi women during the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s.
In other words, through the course of our work on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, our consciousness was raised on the issue of genocide. And it has not ended there. As our AIDS Task Force will attest, our activism on this issue has connected to us to a deeper understanding and concern about a variety of issues, including global poverty, grassroots sustainable development, and women’s rights. Though AIDS may have been the initial entry point for our activism, it has inevitably led to other points along a larger global continuum.
It is thus a fallacy to consider activism to be a “zero-sum game.” As those who work for social justice and human rights will attest, action begets action.
This is not an uncommon reaction to the news of genocide or human rights abuse around the world. While Serbia was ethnically cleansing Bosnian Muslims, for instance, Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to it as “a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent.“ Whether it is Serbs massacring Bosnians, or Hutus killing Tutsis in Rwanda, our gut reaction is invariably the same – it is all too easy for us to dismiss these events as the result of ancient and tribal hatreds occurring in another part of the world – battles that are not our concern and that we are powerless to do anything about.
However, Jews of all people should understand the profoundly fatal consequences of such attitudes. After all, in 1938, British foreign minister Neville Chamberlain referred to the war in Europe as “a quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing.” How often have we Jews asked, “Where was the world in our hour of need?” How often have we ourselves taken the rest of the world to task for standing by while the Nazis implemented their Final Solution?
There can be only one logical conclusion: if we hold the world accountable to us, then we must be accountable to world as well. Or as Elie Wiesel has eloquently put it: “How can we reproach the indifference of non-Jews to Jewish suffering if we remain indifferent to another people’s plight?” (from remarks delivered at the Darfur Emergency Summit, July 14, 2004.)
The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 refers to “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Indeed, the inherent worth of all human life, so central to contemporary definitions of human rights, have been influenced in no small way by the Torah’s teaching that all humanity is created in God’s image.
Who are we to insert ourselves into this current situation? Who are we not to?
Private citizens are not as powerless to stop genocides as we often profess. As human rights scholars and activists have long pointed out, genocidal regimes are often encouraged by the world’s silence. In her book, “A Problem From Hell,” Samantha Power writes:
Hitler was emboldened by the fact that absolutely nobody “remembered the Armenians.” Saddam Hussein, noting the international community’s relaxed response to his chemical weapons attacks against Iran and his bulldozing of Kurdish villages, rightly assumed that he would not be punished for using poison gases against his own people. (Slobodan) Milosevic saw that he got away with the brutal suppression of an independence movement in Croatia, and reasoned he would pay no price for committing genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo. (pp. 506-507.)
If we do agree that genocide is enabled by silence, then we must also agree that it is the responsibility of our politicians, Washington lobbyists, the media, organizations and, yes, private citizens to shine the brightest light possible on these atrocities. If the politics of the situation are complex, then we must educate ourselves and others about the issues at hand and strongly advocate realistic and effective courses of action.
In the case of Darfur, this might mean any number of measures, be they military (i.e., providing UN peacekeepers, mobilizing NATO to establish a No – Fly Zone), diplomatic (i.e., encouraging President Bush to apply pressure on Sudan trading partners such as China and Russia) or economic (i.e., lobbying State legislatures to follow the example of the states that have already divested their considerable investments in Sudan).
The Khartoum government, like so many genocidal regimes before it, assumes the world will consider this crisis to be an internal Sudanese issue – and so it will be as long as the world refuses to speak out and bring its atrocities into the light of day. Activists thus have a crucial and sacred role to play: to ensure that the cry of Darfur remain front and center on the world’s conscience.
Even the most cynical among us should be reminded that this issue is not nearly as complicated as we tend to think. Years from now, the history of the Darfur genocide will have been written. When your children and grandchildren ask you about your role in this history, you will answer either that you spoke out or that you remained silent.
What will your answer be?
(Visit Save Darfur for up to date information and learn how you can make a difference.)