A Local Witness to Darfur Tragedy

John Fishel has seen hell, and he wants to share his impressions with the Jewish community.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles recently visited refugee camps in the African country of Chad to bear witness to the pain and suffering of more than 250,000 victims of genocide from neighboring Sudan. During the five-day, mid-October trip, Fishel, along with four other American Jewish leaders, watched doctors, relief workers and others help the refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region begin the long, difficult process of putting shattered lives back together.

Fishel said he was stuck by the physical isolation of the refugee camps and the refugees’ abject poverty. Fishel also wondered where all the grown men were. The answer: Many had fallen victim to the atrocities. And then there were the children. Fishel, a social worker by training, said he worries about the long-term effects on children who witness all the murder, rape and destruction wrought by a Sudanese government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed.

A primary goal of the trip was to lay the groundwork for Fishel and his colleagues to speak out loudly to their constituents. Fishel was accompanied by Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS); Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

In an Oct. 27 teleconference call with community leaders who went to Africa, Fishel said he plans to raise awareness in the local Jewish community: “Having had this first-hand experience to visit the region and see the work on the ground, I’d like to go out and meet with opinion leaders in our community and give them my personal impressions about what’s going on and why it’s our obligation to get involved.”

Coming on the heels of Asia’s devastating tsunami and the Gulf Coast’s Hurricane Katrina, Fishel said he realizes many Jews, like other Americans, might feel tapped out and suffer from donor fatigue. Still, Fishel said, the historical experience of the Jews makes them likely to respond to humanitarian appeals once they learn about the horrors in Sudan.

“As a people who were victims of the worst genocide of the 20th century, the Holocaust, we do have an obligation to speak out when we see a genocide happening anywhere in the world,” Fishel said.

A more assertive response from the U.S. government also would help, Messinger said. She urged Jews and Jewish groups to lobby the government to increase humanitarian aid and also to better support African Union troops who are trying to restore order in Darfur. Messinger’s organization, the AJWS, which sponsored the trip, dedicates itself to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease around the world.

“Genocide is only stopped when people are indignant, organized at the grass-roots level and urging government to intervene,” she said.

AJWS has raised and distributed $700,000 for projects in Darfur and Chad, with much of the money going to support international relief agencies. In addition to the refugees in Chad, nearly 2 million displaced persons remain in Sudan. Refugees in both countries need better medical care, more food and assistance in the reunification of their families.

“The bottom line is … the Jewish community needs to do more,” Jacobs said.