A rally in downtown Jerusalem for the Darfur refugees – the sign reads “Save Darfur’. “The turnout really represented the rainbow of Israeli society,” says Seraphya Berrin.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.
“There is a genocide happening as we speak,” Berrin told ISRAEL21c. “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 militias, 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 UN 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. Over three 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 September 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 UN 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, and 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.
Says Berrin, during the rally, several Israelis approached him to ask, “Who is Darfur?”
“Israelis are rightly so engrossed in their country’s own problems,” says Berrin. “But I believe very strongly that just because we have our own problems at home, 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 and who is also passionate about what is happening in Darfur. “Tikkun Olam means we don’t just have responsibility for ourselves, but for the world.”
As foreigners in Israel, Berrin says 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 says. “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.”
Aside from showing support for the citizens of Darfur, the rally’s primary purpose was to raise awareness in Israel and to encouraging activism among Israelis. “In general, the more people who 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. Like with Iran, it’s about getting the whole international community on the same page about this,” says Berrin. “Israel can play a special role in this, since if Israel does something about it, the rest of the world will follow suit in some way.”
For Kupferman, the child of Holocaust survivors, it is this history that makes the atrocities in Darfur resonate all the more vividly. “When I stop to think about it, I can come up with several reasons to care less about these people [from an enemy state], but at the end of the day, I don’t. We are not defending the Sudanese government; 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 HAED (Hatzilu et Amei Darfur) ‘Save the Nations of Darfur’, with representatives in yeshivas, seminaries, universities, high schools, and youth movements across Israel. Their mailing list now totals around 400 people, and every day the group processes 15-20 new emails, about 75% of which are in Hebrew.
“Relative to how long we have been up and running, I think we have had a huge impact on the Israeli public,” comments Kupferman. “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 the Hebrew University, and Holocaust researcher Elana Yael. “All different kinds of Israelis came out – haredi, secular, activists from the right and left wings,” says Berrin. “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,” says Schwartz, who appears on a morning shows on Israel’s Channel 2, and who is currently doing his M.A. 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 was 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 sites set on solving the issues in Sudan; we just want to help the refugees who are in Israel right now,” Schwartz told ISRAEL21c, 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 says. “They have escaped genocide and we should be embracing them.”
“The government does not come out very nicely in this story, but individuals in Israel really have,” says Ben-Dor. “Look at the shelters across Israel that have opened their doors to the Sudanese women and children; look at the kibbutzim and moshavim that have agreed to take them in once they are released from jail; look at the Hotline, which has already found homes for 63 of the currently imprisoned refugees, once they are released; look at the overnight construction of organizations like CARD, and HAED.”
“We have now reached the point where there are tons of organizations in Israel that are getting involved in helping to Save the Nations of Darfur,” says Berrin. “We are confident that HAED will continue on beyond those of us who started it. I only hope it won’t have to continue on that long.”