Rabbi Meets Genocide's General
Refugees fleeing . . . from a village called Saleya described how nine boys were seized by the janjaweed, stripped naked and tied up, their noses and ears cut off and their eyes gouged out. They were then shot dead and left near a public well. From the continuing reports from Darfur by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
I have wondered what it would be like to be in the presence of Sudanese president General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the apprentice Hitler of our time, who is responsible for the genocide in Darfur, which is very likely to surpass the Rwanda genocide in the number of slaughtered corpses. Rwanda's atrocities lasted less than a year, but Darfur's started in 2003, and in addition to the killings, more than 2 million black Africans have been displaced from their razed homes and villages.
Recently, however, I talked to an American rabbi who actually has been in the same room with the mass murderer Bashir, members of his cabinet, and other officials.
The rabbi is Mordechai Liebling, vice president for programs at the Jewish Fund for Justice. In June of last year, he was invited by the Muslim American Freedom Foundation to be part of an interfaith, interracial delegation of religious leaders to Sudan.
Rabbi Liebling was briefly in a quandary. Since his first wife died four years ago, he has been raising four young children. And as he wrote in the MarchApril Jewish Currents, Bashir's government had "arrested the two senior members of Doctors Without Borders for releasing a report on rape . . . and journalists were being detained and accused of being spies. . . . I imagined myself being arrested as a Zionist spy."
"But how could I not go?" he said in the article, "A Rabbi Investigates in Sudan." He was to be the only rabbi in the delegation. Moreover, he added, "My parents were Holocaust survivors, and I grew up in a home crowded with murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins."
The delegation had access to the top rank of Sudanese officials and even had a motorcycle escort on their rounds. Not surprisingly, however, as the rabbi noted, "President Bashir and senior Sudanese officials repeatedly lied, with great sincerity, right to our faces about the past, and about their intentions."
Over the years, I've interviewed all kinds of people, including some I would not want to meet on the street at two in the morning. Once, covering a gang of very wayward youths, I overheard a plan to dispose of me permanently, but the leader called it off. Yet I've never met an actual organizer of genocide.
"What was General Bashir like?" I was compelled to ask Rabbi Liebling.
"The general," he began, "is a master politician. He exudes warmth, congeniality, and seeming sincerity. And he denies any involvement in the murders and rapes by the janjaweed." These Arab militias armed and financed by the Bashir government, along with Sudanese army officers and soldiers, are on the front line in the killing fields of Darfur.
The rabbi also met, as he described in Jewish Currents, "the cultural and political elite of the country, among them scores of elderly Sudanese with Ph.D.'s from European and American universities. They were charming, erudite, lovely people who did not admit to us any government wrongdoing. . . . I think I now understand how privilege and denial function togetheras happened in Germany. It made me reflect on my own levels of denial as a privileged person in our global society."
When the rabbi and I spoke, he added: "These genteel, cultivated people showed me no consciousness of the rapes and murders by the janjaweed. They would not engage in any discussion of the slow genocide that keeps going on. It was a classic example of cognitive dissonance, of denial, and that is how it also happened in Germany."
Mordechai Liebling is far from the only rabbi intently involved in ending the Darfur genocide. He will join an extraordinary range of religious and secular organizations and prominent individuals in a huge demonstration for that purpose in Washington on April 30. George W. Bush will be invited to speak. Let's see if he comes.
Next week: details about how to be part of the April 30 "Rally to Stop Genocide" in Washington, its organizers, and its agenda.
Meanwhile, as reported in the March 17 Jewish Weekand hardly anywhere elseon March 14, a rally by 150 rabbis at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the United Nations, "drew rabbis from across the New York area and from all four branches of Judaism."
Present was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center and a persistent activator of what might be called the Jewish social gospel that I learned from my father, who insistently believed that Judaism is synonymous with ending injustice anywhere.
Said Rabbi Saperstein: "I think the message from the rabbis is that in the end, if thousands more die in Darfur, we're all going to be held accountable. [Already] we all have to live with the responsibility of what happened in Rwanda."
And speaking of the capacity of a national elite's denial of responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by their own country, our attorney general, Alberto Gonzalesspeaking in London before the International Institute for Strategic Studiesdenied that the CIA kidnaps terrorism suspects on the streets of various countries and sends them to nations known for torturing their prisoners.
Like George W. Bush, Gonzales, straight-faced, also assured his audience that "the United States abhors torture and categorically rejects its use." He omitted detailed, mounting evidence to the contrary.
And I have a Defense Department March 10 release about our prisoners at Guantánamo that declares: "All detainees are treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and receive military care similar to what deployed U.S. servicemembers receive, officials said."
Really, our servicemen are strapped to metal chairs and force-fed as they urinate and defecate on themselves?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.