‘It’s all happening again’: 20 years after genocide in Darfur, ethnic violence returns

Jewish activists were key players in the grassroots Save Darfur movement. Where do they stand as experts again warn of a risk of genocide in Sudan?

On a recent walk in Manhattan’s Central Park, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, ran into Ruth Messinger, the former longtime leader of American Jewish World Service. 

The unexpected meetup between the head of the Reform Jewish community and one of the best known Jewish social-justice advocates featured the usual hugs and how-are-yous. But Jacobs was troubled that day, due to recent news out of Darfur, a region in western Sudan that became infamous for a horrific genocide that occurred there two decades ago. 

“Ruth,” Jacobs said. “It looks like it’s all happening again.”

Nearly two decades ago, Jacobs and Messinger were two of the unofficial leaders of the Save Darfur movement, which saw a diverse coalition of activists come together to call for global action in the face of a horrific event that was deemed genocide by Congress and the George W. Bush administration in 2004. 

The campaign drew widespread support from within the American Jewish community: Rabbis spoke about the genocide from the pulpit, while students solicited donations for relief efforts. In Washington, advocates lobbied Congress to address the genocide, and thousands of activists turned out for a 2006 rally on the National Mall, with speakers that included Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). Green rubber bracelets that said “Save Darfur” became a fixture at synagogues.  

“For a while, things were quiet,” Messinger told Jewish Insider recently. United Nations peacekeepers entered Darfur in late 2007, and the situation mostly stabilized. “Then, let’s say in the last six months, it was clear from the political stories that it was pretty terrible.” 

“Now,” Messinger added, “it’s clear that it’s worse than terrible.”

This picture taken on May 2, 2023 shows a destroyed medical storage in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur province, as deadly clashes between rival generals’ forces have entered their third week.

In April, the political situation in Sudan deteriorated when two warring military leaders sparked an armed conflict after talks to create a civilian government fell apart. Darfur, an impoverished region home to deep ethnic divisions, began to experience violence that, to some, felt eerily familiar. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., last week warned of a “dire risk of genocide” in Darfur. 

“When I went to Darfur, there was no security. There was no military, no policing. It was just basically anarchy,” said Jordan Siegel, an American filmmaker who recently traveled to the region while filming a documentary about a Sudanese asylum-seeker who lives in Israel. “It was one of the worst humanitarian crises I’ve ever seen.”

Today, reports of ethnic violence in Darfur may have a harder time getting through to people in a world that is awash with stories of humanitarian crises in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Burma, Xinjiang and more. In part, that’s due to Jewish activists focusing their energy elsewhere — including in the U.S., where antisemitism is on the rise and domestic issues have drawn the attention of American Jews. But it’s also because the Save Darfur movement succeeded in dramatically reshaping and reinvigorating the human rights field of atrocity prevention.

When Americans learned about Darfur in 2004 and 2005, the failure to respond to other genocides still stung. 

“Darfur hit Western media headlines around the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, over which there was a widespread sense of guilt and shame regarding U.S. inaction,” said Rebecca Hamilton, a law professor at American University and the author of a book about the public campaign against the Darfur genocide. “Darfur was seen as a chance to right those wrongs and to push the U.S. government into action.” 

For many Jews, the consideration was not just Rwanda but the Holocaust, when Washington had failed to intervene until several years into the Nazis’ genocide of Europe’s Jews.

“The rhetoric was like, ‘Does never again mean never again in eastern Germany in the late ‘30s? Or does never again mean never again?’” recalled Messinger. Holocaust survivors who were active in the Save Darfur movement shared their own stories of surviving the Nazis to make their point clear.

“As a Jew, I’m here because when we needed people to help us, nobody came. Therefore, we’re here,” Wiesel said at the 2006 rally in Washington.

During the Save Darfur campaign, information from far-flung war zones could not as easily reach an American audience. So that conflict was a rare instance, in the pre-social media era, when grisly photos from a distant, largely unknown region reached millions.

A sandbag barricade is set up near a trench along a street in Khartoum as fighting continues between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary forces, on April 27, 2023.

Last month, New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen reported that the janjaweed, the Arab militia members who had perpetrated the genocide of the early aughts, were again rampaging through Darfuri streets. Polgreen recounted the story of Adam Abakar Mahmoud, who was pulled from a truck at a checkpoint and shot at point-blank range when the janjaweed learned he was not Arab but Masalit, another ethnic group that lives in the region. His cousin Siddig Abdulrahman, who was lighter-skinned and could pass as Arab, was not shot.

Polgreen’s column recalled a 2005 series of op-eds by Nicholas Kristof, who obtained and published brutal images of the genocide in Darfur. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the articles, which were widely viewed as a catalyst for the nascent Save Darfur movement.

“I’m sorry for inflicting these horrific photos on you,” Kristof wrote at the time. “But the real obscenity isn’t in printing pictures of dead babies — it’s in our passivity, which allows these people to be slaughtered.”

Los Angeles Rabbi Harold Schulweis was so moved by reports of the genocide in Darfur that he created a nonprofit focused on atrocity prevention called Jewish World Watch. The organization’s current CEO, Serena Oberstein, noted that the Jewish community has not yet “come out in force in the same way” that they did nearly 20 years ago. 

“But when the Darfur genocide began, it was 2003. And it wasn’t until 2004 — it took months and months and months and a Nicholas Kristof article to really wake people up,” she said. “I definitely have concerns that people are so inundated with the many other traumas, but there are people who will find space, that this is their issue.”

In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before Congress about the situation in Darfur, and shocked lawmakers by calling it a genocide. (Congress had made the same determination weeks earlier.) It was the first time the White House had used the word to refer to an ongoing crisis. 

In the years since, due in part to the activism of the Save Darfur movement, the U.S. government has taken steps to respond to similar atrocities in a more timely manner. As president, Obama created an Atrocities Prevention Board to bring together experts and policymakers to respond to atrocities in Syria and Libya. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump signed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which requires the president to report annually to Congress on U.S. efforts to respond to atrocities. 

“Having the structure there is useful. It’s certainly something that didn’t exist back in the Save Darfur movement,” said Andrea Gittleman, the policy director at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

There’s also the newfound ease with which Americans can get in touch with their elected officials. Now, after years of mass social movements in the U.S., making a quick call — or sending an email — to a member of Congress is a process with which many more Americans are familiar. 

“One of the best things that happened in 2016 was that more and more people got politically engaged and socially engaged than ever before,” said Oberstein. “It’s really just a matter of how we’re engaging them and being smart.” 

But before any calls get made, activists like Oberstein need to convince American Jews that this is an issue that, amid all the other challenges at home and abroad, is worth their time and their resources.

“Those of us who were very much involved [in Save Darfur], I think we’re all kind of touching base and thinking, ‘Is this a moment to reactivate our networks?’” asked Jacobs. “We, through our activism, can actually save lives.”

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