Nat Hentoff writes in the Village Voice about Mordechai Liebling, a rabbi who met with the head of Sudan’s ruling junta and the country’s elite while on a mission to end the genocide in Darfur:
I have wondered what it would be like to be in the presence of Sudanese president General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the apprentice Hitler of our time, who is responsible for the genocide in Darfur, which is
very likely to surpass the Rwanda genocide in the number of slaughtered corpses. Rwanda’s atrocities lasted less than a year, but Darfur’s started in 2003, and in addition to the killings, more than 2 million
black Africans have been displaced from their razed homes and villages.
Recently, however, I talked to an American rabbi who actually
has been in the same room with the mass murderer Bashir, members of his
cabinet, and other officials.
The rabbi is Mordechai Liebling, vice president for programs
at the Jewish Fund for Justice. In June of last year, he was invited by
the Muslim American Freedom Foundation to be part of an interfaith,
interracial delegation of religious leaders to Sudan.
Rabbi Liebling was briefly in a quandary. Since his first wife
died four years ago, he has been raising four young children. And as he
wrote in the March–April Jewish Currents, Bashir’s government had "arrested the two
senior members of Doctors Without Borders for releasing a report on
rape . . . and journalists were being detained and accused of being
spies. . . . I imagined myself being arrested as a Zionist spy."
"But how could I not go?" he said in the article, "A Rabbi
Investigates in Sudan." He was to be the only rabbi in the delegation.
Moreover, he added, "My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I grew up
in a home crowded with murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles, and
The delegation had access to the top rank of Sudanese
officials and even had a motorcycle escort on their rounds. Not
surprisingly, however, as the rabbi noted, "President Bashir and senior
Sudanese officials repeatedly lied, with great sincerity, right to our
faces about the past, and about their intentions."
Over the years, I’ve interviewed all kinds of people,
including some I would not want to meet on the street at two in the
morning. Once, covering a gang of very wayward youths, I overheard a
plan to dispose of me permanently, but the leader called it off. Yet
I’ve never met an actual organizer of genocide.
"What was General Bashir like?" I was compelled to ask Rabbi Liebling.
"The general," he began, "is a master politician. He exudes
warmth, congeniality, and seeming sincerity. And he denies any
involvement in the murders and rapes by the janjaweed." These Arab
militias armed and financed by the Bashir government, along with
Sudanese army officers and soldiers, are on the front line in the
killing fields of Darfur.
The rabbi also met, as he described in Jewish Currents, "the
cultural and political elite of the country, among them scores of
elderly Sudanese with Ph.D.’s from European and American universities.
They were charming, erudite, lovely people who did not admit to us any
government wrongdoing. . . . I think I now understand how privilege and
denial function together—as happened in Germany. It made me reflect on
my own levels of denial as a privileged person in our global society."
When the rabbi and
I spoke, he added: "These genteel, cultivated people showed me no
consciousness of the rapes and murders by the janjaweed. They would not
engage in any discussion of the slow genocide that keeps going on. It
was a classic example of cognitive dissonance, of denial, and that is
how it also happened in Germany."
Hentoff also notes the involvement of rabbis from across the Judaic spectrum in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur:
Mordechai Liebling is far from the only rabbi intently
involved in ending the Darfur genocide. He will join an extraordinary
range of religious and secular organizations and prominent individuals
in a huge demonstration for that purpose in Washington on April 30.
George W. Bush will be invited to speak. Let’s see if he comes.…
Meanwhile, as reported in the March 17 Jewish Week—and hardly
anywhere else—on March 14, a rally by 150 rabbis at Dag Hammarskjold
Plaza, near the United Nations, "drew rabbis from across the New York
area and from all four branches of Judaism."…
Said Rabbi Saperstein: "I think the message from the rabbis is
that in the end, if thousands more die in Darfur, we’re all going to be
held accountable. [Already] we all have to live with the responsibility
of what happened in Rwanda."
Haredim are disproportionately Holocaust survivors or their descendants. Yet how many haredi rabbis attended that demonstration? How many have tried to help end the genocide in Darfur (or earlier in Rawanda)? Disproportionately few (if any).
Perhaps haredi ideology can be summed up this way: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself? That’s the way God wants it.
Why should non-Jews care about helping Jews if the most visible Jews do not care about helping them?