Fasting for Darfur

By Rabbi Michael Holzman

On my door I have a “Stop the Genocide” sticker.  It’s been there for over three years now, and the war in Darfur drags on.   So why am I fasting on what seems like a random day in August 2009 for this cause?  (I do this in conjunction with the Religious Action Center’s rolling clergy fast.)  Why not let it simmer on the back burner where it has been since 2006 when a group of us traveled to DC for the Save Darfur rally?

Nobody argues that Darfur is not a morally compelling issue.  For years, the government of Sudan has employed “janjaweed” militias to attack and evict residents of the western Sudan region of Darfur.  The attacks are largely based on ethnicity and amount to a massive land grab by the Sudanese government.  In addition, the government has supported the “janjaweed” directly through airstrikes that preceed almost every attack.

The results are over 2 million internally displaced persons and another 200,000 refugees in Chad.  In addition, women refugees live in constant fear of rape.   Darfur was a peaceful region before these attacks, but since then it has become a battleground between the janjaweed and newly formed militia groups.   While the government has signed “peace” agreements with many of the militias, not all have joined in, and the agreeements have disintegrated.

But why fast now?

For two reasons:  (1) this is another issue on the plate of the new Obama administration and we want to show that we have not forgotten the pledge of then Senator Obama in 2006 who said that if we showed political pressure, then the U.S. government would have to act, and (2) three months ago, the Sudanese government evicted all of the Humanitarian Aid groups helping refugees.  So for three months, over 2 million people have been living without assistance in refugee camps.  I shudder to think of what the aid organizations will encounter when they return.  This eviction means that the crisis has taken another turn for the worse, and those of us revolted by this genocide need to respond in kind with more political pressure.  Just like the President said.

And why fast?  Now that it is 2:45 and I have not eaten since last night, I’m asking myself the same question.

Even in my current bit of hunger, I dare not compare my state to that of starving and abused refugees in Sudan and Chad.  What I feel now is nothing, I’m sure, compared to what they’ve endured and continue to endure.  This fast is not about solidarity.

In Judaism we have a number of official fasts on the calendar, and all of them are linked to one major idea: memory.  We fast with Esther, to remember her fear before confronting the king, and the courage she showed in saving the Jewish people.  The first born sons fast to remember the tyranny of Pharoah and the faith that held them through the night of the 10th plague.   We fast on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av to remember tragedy and national destruction.  And we fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, to remember our shortcomings, our errors, our inability to live up to our ideals.

This is a situation that embodies all of these memories.  To confront Sudan and its Chinese supporters, the people and leaders of the United States need to show courage.  They confront a tyrant’s regime.  We must remember to have faith that right and goodness can prevail even in a region like Darfur.  We as a people have witnessed tragedy on a national scale, and we know that survival is possible despite the darkness.  And we also fast to remember our shortcomings, our inability to act in these first years following a century of genocidal bloodletting.  We wanted the 21st century to be different, to no avail.

Jews remember the human capacity for evil, but we also remember the miraculous capacity for good.  I fast to remind myself why I have that sticker on my door, and to plant within the seeds of hope.

I look forward to your comments.