Each year, we gather with family and friends for our Passover seder. We lift the matzo and remember how we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. We talk about the blood, locusts, boils, hail and so on, then we dig in to our “festive meal.” We remember, and then we eat. How lucky are we?
This year at Jewish World Watch (jww.org) — the anti-genocide organization where I serve — we are going beyond remembering the traditional Exodus story of the Hebrew slaves. Our Passover conversation also remembers the fleeing, homeless refugees and displaced people worldwide whose number, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has officially topped 65 million. They, too, are innocent people who’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods through violence perpetrated, in many cases, by outright hostility from their own governments.
Bombs, not hail, have fallen from the skies over Syria and in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Deliberate acts of arson, not frogs, have destroyed the farms of peace-loving South Sudanese. And rampant sexual violence against women and children — there are too many places to name where that behavior is just a fact of life.
What do these stories have to do with Passover? For those who survive the modern-day plagues to flee, these are their Passover stories. We need alter our haggadah only slightly to see the parallels: We must remember that we were once refugees from the land of Egypt. We fled from the torment of a greedy and vicious head of state — Pharaoh — who profited from our labor and tortured us because we were ethnically different, and because we sought freedom from his tyranny.
But in our flight, we had an extraordinary asset: Moses, a stalwart, though initially unlikely, leader who stood up for our rights and dignity. An inspirational, albeit flawed, figure who tried to advocate peacefully before leading us out of bondage.
And we had matzo. As flat and tasteless as it still may seem, we brought it with us as sustenance as we headed to the desert where, unbelievably, we were gifted with the manna that kept us alive.
We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees?
We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees? And where is the matzo — and the manna — for the famine-afflicted people attempting to find food for their children and themselves in civil war-infested South Sudan? I call out South Sudan, in particular, because it is one of the countries in which Jewish World Watch has long invested. So, at our Passover meal, we will remember that, despite the efforts of Jewish World Watch and many other international nongovernmental organizations, innocent people in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, are dying of starvation because of a senseless civil war.
The United Nations reports that more than half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, with 1 million people at risk of famine. And just two years after the country became an independent nation, 1.9 million people in South Sudan have become internally displaced. Another 1.6 million people have exited its borders as refugees. Many of those refugees are children orphaned by the civil war.
Who will be Moses for the people of South Sudan? Who will save lives by offering support and sustenance? It’s up to you and me to help fill in the gap. Jewish World Watch is embarking on an emergency campaign to help respond to this crisis.
Most of all, we must recognize that the humanitarian crisis will end only when South Sudan’s leaders are forced to end the civil war and address the corruption, poor governance and fractures within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. A united effort to put pressure on the key actors and their warring factions in the conflict must come from all of us, and from the United Nations, the African Union and the United States.
We cannot stand idly by.
SUSAN FREUDENHEIM is executive director of Jewish World Watch.