I’m going to jail.
Along with interfaith religious leaders, members of Congress, and others, I am going to be arrested in Washington, D.C., today outside the Embassy of Sudan in a public protest of the continuing genocide in Darfur.
The aim is to focus attention on Darfur and to add stronger voices to help the Bush administration force the international community to take action to halt the tragedy. Our act is a prelude to the "Save Darfur" mass rally scheduled for Sunday on the National Mall.
Darfur is a remote region of western Sudan bordering Chad. The Arab-dominated Sudanese government has engaged in a genocidal policy in Darfur designed to ethnically cleanse the region of the mainly black African tribal people from whose ranks come rebel groups fighting the central government.
The situation is extraordinarily complicated. Human rights groups say the rebels are also responsible for abuses, including looting humanitarian aid convoys. Chadian bandits encouraged by Sudan’s actions also prey on the tribal population. Still, if the Sudanese government could be taken to task and forced to stop the abuses, most would stop.
It is not the combatants on either side, but the unarmed civilians, the dirt-poor families that struggle for survival in the best of times, who suffer most. They are the victims of government-backed Arab militias known as the Janajweed, a group of poor nomadic tribesman who are guns-for-hire in the conflict. Some ‘00,000 have died and another ‘ million civilians have been forced from their villages and are refugees living their lives in sparely equipped camps beset by starvation and disease.
And Osama bin Laden’s call for Islamic militants to head to Sudan to confront African Union and U.N. peace efforts there is sure to inflame the situation further. How ironic, given that both the Sudanese government and Darfur’s tribes are Muslim.
Given the difficulties of the situation, what good can come from my arrest?
In truth, the arrest is a little political theater designed to garner media attention in advance of Sunday’s mass demonstration. Such actions are commonplace in Washington. Law enforcement officials sanction in advance where and when they will take place. Protesters in violation of trespass laws are peaceably arrested, and after a few hours in custody pay a small fine and are released.
There is no real sacrifice on my part. So again, what’s the point?
In a moment of exquisite, some would say divine, timing, Haftarah Shemini, read in synagogue just last Shabbat, helps make my point.
The reading from II Samuel refers to the death of Uzzah. Uzzah is slain by God after he tries to keep the Ark of the Covenant from toppling from a cart pulled by oxen that lose their balance. The traditional explanation for Uzzah’s death is that despite his good intention, his touching the Ark was an act of irreverence for which he had to pay dearly.
As extreme, even outrageous, as this repercussion seems, I much prefer a more contemporary explanation, one that sheds a moral light on Darfur: that Uzzah’s offense was not that he dared touch the Ark, but it was that he allowed others, including no less a revered figure than King David, to arrange inappropriate transportation for the Ark, when Uzzah knew, or should have known, that the arrangement was lacking.
In short, Uzzah’s greater offense was his failure to act before it was too late, before disaster struck.
As Jews, we are directed to be proactive rather than merely reactive. Our responsibility is to question the actions of those in power, and, when necessary, to draw public attention to their failings. We cannot simply sit back and blame outcomes on others. Uzzah’s death can show us that we bear the consequences of our inaction as well as our action.
The West’s reaction to Darfur until now is yet another example of how easy it is to wash our hands of a situation we believe does not affect us directly. We tell ourselves that we have issues closer to home and closer to our heart that must take priority, and we divert our gaze.
This week, we also commemorate Yom HaShoah, our own genocide in the Holocaust, and we say "Never again." Well, it’s happening again.
As ‘1st-century Jews, as citizens of a world made smaller by globalization, we do not have the luxury to look the other way. We are called to speak up and to do what we can. Too little, too late no longer cuts it. In this light, to be arrested outside the Sudanese embassy is the very least one can do to bring attention to Darfur.
We must demand action on Darfur from our government and from the world and we must do all we can to ensure that this demand is heard.
Washington Jewish Week
Rabbi Steve Gutow is executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a member of the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition.