At the height of the Nike Live Strong yellow bracelet craze, every organization was selling every possible colored rubber bracelet, representing a diverse spectrum of causes. For about four or five years or so, I wore a green bracelet, never taking it off, as a subtle way to take a stand on a larger issue. From about 2003 or so until 2008, I wore a green bracelet made and sold by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) that had embossed on it two simple words: Save Darfur.
Save Darfur. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, was – and still is – consumed by violence and genocide. Since early 2003, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, the militias that they armed, were conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur. They focused on ethnic cleansing, murdering close to half a million people, and displacing another 2 million people. Even when a peace agreement was signed in 2006, it was clear that the Sudanese government had escalated its campaign to terrorize and kill civilians, to rape women and young girls, and to burn villages and drive innocent people from their homes.
Two words — Save Darfur — were embossed on my wrist. Why? With two other words, Never Again, engrained in the collective memory of our people, it’s our obligation to make sure genocide no longer happens. We do not only stand up to prevent genocide against our people, to prevent a second Holocaust, but we stand up to put an end to ethnic cleansing, no matter the corner of the world. To me, the words Save Darfur meant the same as Never Again.
The establishment of the Modern State of Israel made the promise of “Never Again” a reality. Israel was to be a safe haven, a place where individuals didn’t have to worry about being abused, imprisoned, raped, or murdered simply because of who they were.
World Jewry, and more specifically, the American Jewish Community with AJWS at the forefront, sought to end to the violence in the Sudan. So, it is only appropriate that the Jewish community doesn’t just fight to end genocide, but ensures the continued safety of those impacted by such genocide.
In 2010, thousands of Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally, trekking by foot for weeks from Sudan through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel seeking political asylum. Sudan’s neighboring Eritrea is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders and thousands of refugees came from this neighboring nation as well, also seeking political asylum.
Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that there are over 54,000 African asylum seekers in Israel from this region. Israel has not granted a single one of them asylum, with many in the government claiming that they are simply “work infiltrators” in Israel not for interested in their own safety, but only to improve their quality of life.
Last week, Israel witnessed a dramatic demonstration staged by refugees. 150 Sudanese men who had been incarcerated in an immigration prison in Southern Israel – some for as long as two years – marched for three days along with twenty or so human rights workers to the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem. With handmade signs written in Hebrew and English, they marched, chanting “No More Prison. Refugees’ rights right now!” They were marching for freedom.
Israeli border police eventually intervened, forming a human barricade around the group, forcing them back into busses waiting to drive them back to the cold cells in southern Israel. Following the illegal immigration of these asylum seekers years ago, Israel built a $400 million security fence at its southern border. Still, not knowing how to deal with these 50,000 asylum seekers, a new Anti-Infiltration Law was passed by Knesset which transfers these refugees to an “open air” prison, which essentially means that they are still locked up, but they can walk around outside while they’re locked up. Even more worrisome about this new law is the fact that it permits government to incarcerate refugees seeking asylum indefinitely.
Following the protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a brief three sentence statement: referring to these asylum seekers as work infiltrators and calmly explained that they are welcome to remain locked up in this immigration prison or return to genocide in their home countries. We promised to Save Darfur. We declared Never Again. And yet, these 50,000 refugees are left with a choice of incarceration or genocide.
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, and were reminded of what it feels like to be imprisoned,reminded of what it feels like to be enslaved. Stuck in the 400 year old reality of slavery in Egypt, we refused to remain incarcerated by Pharaoh any longer. Moses, along with Aaron, come to Pharaoh demanding freedom for the Israelites and when Pharaoh refuses, God brings upon the Egyptians the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail. And with each time, with each hardship, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. Still, time and time again, Moses and Aaron, continue to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.
Exodus 7:1 reveals the Divine nature of fighting for an individuals freedom:
Vayomer Adonai El Moshe Re’eh N’ta’ticha Elohim l’faroh v’aharon achi’cha yihye n’viecha.
God said to Moses: See that I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.
God’s statement confirms the Divine nature of standing up for freedom and justice. When one stands up and says “Let my people go” he or she is not speaking his own words, he’s not just speaking for himself; he is speaking for God. He is doing God’s will. When one demands justice and freedom, one speaks for God. Moses’ cry for freedom was God’s cry for freedom. Aaron’s prophetic voice spread God’s call for freedom.
Every time an African refugee asylum seeker is brave enough to stand up for his own justice the same is true. His cry for freedom is God’s cry for freedom. His call for justice is a prophetic call for justice.
We know eventually what happens in our narrative, beginning this Shabbat as we read Parashat Bo: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn, splitting of the sea, freedom. And once the Jewish people, the Israelites, are freed, God reminds us in Exodus 22:20, that we should not oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We should not incarcerate, imprison, or enslave, for we were once incarcerated, imprisoned, and enslaved. We need to continue to be the prophetic voice, to place ourselves in the role of God – to do God’s Divine work in this world.
After these brave souls marched from Southern Israel to Jerusalem demanding freedom and asylum last week, I looked through my things, trying to find that green Save Darfur bracelet. I couldn’t find it. But the message of those two words remains true. We aren’t seeking to just save the region, we are seeking to save the lives of the people of the region. That does not mean imprisoning them, that means allowing our safe haven to be their safe haven. Such an act is a public statement and a fulfillment of a promise, so that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky