Darfur becomes part of Israeli vocabulary

When 18-year-olds Seraphya Berrin from New York, and Arielle Perlow from Melbourne, Australia, arrived in Israel last fall after spending a week in Poland as part of their B’nei Akiva year abroad program, they were inspired to take action on the world’s current genocide, taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“The trip [to Poland] made me realize that we would be negligent as Jews to our promise of ‘never again’ if we didn’t stand up and do something about it.”

Since February 2003, half a million Sudanese civilians from the Darfur region have been killed by the Khartoum government of Sudan, via proxy Arab terrorists called Janjaweed, as well as by air attacks by the Sudanese army acting in response to rebel attacks on military installations. Journalists have been arrested, the U.N. envoy was forced to leave the country, and Sudanese civilians have been subjected to brutalities including gang rapes and the burning down of homes and religious buildings. More than 3 million have been forced to flee.

Initially, the pair intended to volunteer for existing Israeli efforts; they were shocked to discover that there weren’t any. Just three days after their arrival, on Sept. 17, tens of thousands of people in more than 30 countries around the world were gearing up for Global Day for Darfur, an international rally meant to apply pressure on governments to force the U.N. Security Council to protect the Sudanese civilians. Israel was not on the list.

So, Berrin and Perlow, along with a group of friends from various yeshivas and seminaries across Israel, decided to take matters into their own hands. They planned a last-minute solidarity event, which took place in conjunction with the global efforts, on King George Street in Jerusalem, attracting the participation of some 150 supporters.

Berrin said that during the rally several Israelis approached him to ask, “Who is Darfur?”

“Israelis are rightly so engrossed in their country’s own problems,” Berrin said. “But I believe very strongly that just because we have our own problems at home, that doesn’t mean we can’t help people outside of Israel.”

“I think it’s important for us to keep our domestic home secure, but as Jews it’s important for us to be involved in more global issues,” adds Rachel Kupferman, 18, a student at Yeshiva University in New York, who like Berrin and Perlow is currently on a year program in Israel.

As foreigners in Israel, Berrin said Diaspora Jews like the three of them can play a key role in turning Israel onto global issues.

“In general people from the West are in a special position to do something very positive for Israel,” he said. “We can import some of our positive values and awareness. In this case, we want the average Israeli to know what’s going on in Darfur and to care about it.”

In addition to supporting the citizens of Darfur, the rally’s purpose was to raise awareness in Israel and to encourage activism among Israelis.

“The more people talk about this humanitarian crisis, the faster it will be resolved. As soon as the oppressors don’t think it is in their best interest to continue, they will stop.” Berrin said.

Kupferman is a child of Holocaust survivors, which makes the situation in Darfur resonate all the more vividly for her. “We are not defending the Sudanese government,” she said. “We are defending those who are being persecuted by the Sudanese government.”

Following the success of the rally, the initiators have taken the momentum and founded a full-fledged advocacy group called Hatzilu et Amei Darfur (HAED), which translates to “Save the Nations of Darfur.” It has representatives in yeshivas, seminaries, universities, high schools and youth movements across Israel, and a mailing list of about 400 people that each day rises by 15 to 20 new e-mails, about 75 percent of them in Hebrew.

“Relative to how long we have been up and running, I think we have had a huge impact on the Israeli public,” Kupferman said. “I think we are really making a difference.”

HAED held its second rally in November at Zion Square in Jerusalem, this time attracting some 600-700 people. Speakers included Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of Ma’aleh Gilboa, professor Elihu Richter of Hebrew University and Holocaust researcher Elana Yael.

“All different kinds of Israelis came out — charedi, secular, activists from the right and left wings,” Berrin said. “The turnout really represented the rainbow of Israeli society.”

The group’s efforts did not go unnoticed, particularly not by Eytan Schwartz, winner of the 2004 Israeli reality show “The Ambassador,” and like-minded activist for the citizens of Darfur.

“Seeing these young kids from foreign countries put together this fantastic demonstration was really inspiring,” said Schwartz, who appears on morning shows on Israel’s Channel 2, and who is currently working on his master’s in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “What I was touched by most is that you never see Orthodox people at human rights demonstrations; at least not in Israel. This was an amazingly powerful message.”

While HAED was gathering steam, so, too, were Schwartz’s efforts to establish a coalition of about 10 different organizations in Israel, all dedicated to helping the refugees of Darfur, dubbed the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees of Darfur (CARD).

But unlike HAED, which is aiming to end the genocide, CARD’s primary focus is the Sudanese refugees in Israel. Over the last two years, some 250 refugees from Darfur and southern Sudan have made their way to Israel. When they first started arriving, they were temporarily detained according to Israel’s Law of Entry, since Israel does not grant refugee status to nationals of enemy states. However, the Sudanese nationals were eligible for judicial review, and after a period of months in the Maasiyahu Prison in Ramle, the refugees were released and found their way to kibbutzim and moshavim.

“Unlike HAED, we don’t have our sights set on solving the issues in Sudan; we just want to help the refugees who are in Israel right now,” Schwartz said, adding that their objectives are to raise Israel’s media awareness, fundraise, and find volunteers to make sure the refugees’ immediate needs are looked after.

“We cannot reject these people just because of their nationality,” he said.

“They have escaped genocide and we should be embracing them.”