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November 8, 2004
Doing something about it
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies
Iknow very little about the Sudan and, until recently, the fighting there. Though I’d heard about it on the news, it seemed to be taking place in a country that long had been racked with internecine warfare. While I was pained by reports of suffering, I doubted that there was anything constructive I could do.
Then, in recent months, as the situation grew more severe, it was hard not to pay closer attention. Since early 2003, more than a million “African” Sudanese have been murdered, raped, displaced or otherwise cut off from their homes, villages and food stocks by groups of “Arab” marauders known as Janjaweed. Both groups are Muslims, residents of Africa and people of color. However, the refugees consider the attacks on them as being motivated, in the main, by the fact that they are dark-skinned “Africans.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the marauders are supported by the Sudanese government. According to the United Nations World Food Program, Sudanese troops—who, together with the Janjaweed, have been responsible for afflicting much of the suffering—recently raided the refugee camps in Darfur. Now even the aid agencies, the refugees’ lifeline, have been cut off from them. Rape has become a common weapon in this conflict, as it has been in so many others.
The situation has grown so severe that our Congress (a body not known for taking cutting-edge moral positions) declared the events in Sudan a genocide. This is the first time it has done that in its history.
Late in August, as the school year was beginning, I sat on a Quadrangle bench thinking about this news. It became clear to me that, while I may not know much about Sudan, I do know about genocide.
I have spent most of my professional life teaching about the Holocaust. At Emory I occupy a chair in Holocaust studies and direct a program known as “Witness to the Holocaust.” I have expended intellectual and personal energies fighting those who would deny this event. Moreover, I know that, in every course I teach about the Holocaust, a student will invariably ask: “How come the world—and America in particular—did not do anything?” The question is asked in anger and confusion.
I try to provide both the angry and the confused with a nuanced answer. After World War I, I explain, an isolationist United States was opposed to getting involved in foreign matters.
I remind my students of the Great Depression, of how unemployed Americans considered immigrants to be job competitors. I describe how rampant American xenophobia dovetailed with American anti-Semitism; people simply did not want strangers coming to this country—especially if those strangers were refugees and Jews. The Congress even refused entry to Jewish children. Americans may not have approved of what Germany was doing to the Jews, but they believed the best thing was to remain hands off.
During the war, America could not reach the death camps to bomb them (had it wanted to do so) until the summer of 1944, long after most Jews had been gassed or shot. In other words, had America wanted to do something, the time to act would have been before the killings—not once the genocide was under way.
Finally, I tell students that most Americans could not imagine the stories they were hearing—mass shootings, gassings, millions dead—were true. They could not believe that Germany, once considered the bastion of European intellect and education, was putting Jews in gas chambers and murdering them.
These explanations and a host of others are my attempt to give my students a sense of the mood of the country at the time. Invariably, my words are met with quizzical looks, the same ones I gave my teachers many years ago. Students don’t say so, but I know they think me an apologist for our country. Where, they seem to wonder, is my moral outrage at our country’s failure to open its doors and reach out its hands? I don’t tell them that I believe the classroom is not a place for outrage; it’s a place for education. What students do with that education is their own choice.
But now, as I sat there on the Quad, I thought about this genocide and my response. What would I choose to do? Aware that our country—myself included—sat by during the Rwandan genocide, I became decidedly uncomfortable and began to call a couple of colleagues: “We’ve got to do something. Emory must stand up and be counted.” Before we knew it, a concerned group of students, faculty, staff and administrators had formed the Sudan Crisis Working Group.
Bringing this group together was like pushing against an open door. People were waiting to be asked. In fact, people I did not call called me insisting to be included. Students from Muslim Student Association, Emory Hillel, Amnesty International, the Office of Multicultural Programs and other parts of the university stepped forward.
We organized a monthlong series of events in October and November designed to inform the Emory and Atlanta communities about the situation in Sudan and to encourage individual and group action.
We cannot fight every battle, but there are certain situations from which we cannot turn away. If we do nothing, what then will we—students, administrators and teachers—tell the next generation? We did not know? We were too busy? We lost our sense of moral outrage? I don’t know if our efforts will make a difference. I do know, however, that if we sit silently by, nothing will happen except that more people will suffer and die.
The Sudan Crisis Working Group received support from the Office of International Affairs/Halle Institute for Global Learning, the Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Emory College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, the Joint Activities Committee, the Center for Ethics, Religious Life, Campus Life, Institute of African Students and its Graduate student forum, the Department of African American Studies, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, and the Hightower Lecture Fund.