South Sudan’s Jewish abolitionist

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Click photo to download. Caption: Charles Jacobs surrounded by those he helped to free from slavery. Credit: Courtesy Charles Jacobs

Within Sudan’s well-documented history of intertribal warfare, turbulence, and slavery, there is the lesser-known tale of a Jewish abolitionist.

In 1994, Charles Jacobs quit his job and began his fight against one of the last remnants of slavery. Jacobs had read about the unrest and slave trafficking in Sudan, and founded the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) with Mohamed Athie of Mauritania and David Chand of Sudan in order to take a stand against it.

“One day this black Muslim, black Christian, and white Jew decided to form the anti-slavery movement,” Jacobs says of his decision. “It was very emotional for us. We said, ‘we’re not going to rest until the world knows this is happening.’”

These days, South Sudan is Israel’s newest ally on the African continent. However, the country’s newfound independence presents a stark contrast to its protracted history of slavery. The Dinkas—South Sudan’s ethnic majority—were for years enslaved by Arab traders to the north, a practice that was outlawed by the British during their occupation. Yet in the early 1980s, Sudan as a whole was thrust back into the clutches of civil war, many think due to a rise in Islamism. The central Sudanese government declared all Sudan an Islamic state in 1983, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which represented the southern, mostly non-Muslim Sudan, was formed in response.

Slave trafficking began in earnest at the onset of the civil war, with women and children as the targets. Hundreds of thousands of Dinkas would eventually be captured, the women used primarily as sex slaves, and the children as labor (according to Jacobs, boys would frequently be killed upon reaching puberty, for fear of revolt).

“Arab slaving has less to do with men, and more to do with women and children,” Jacobs says, “because unlike in the west where you needed musculature, in the Arab world slavery is all about concubines, and creating Muslims.”

By the time Jacobs got involved, the slave trade had been thriving for nearly ten years. AASG quickly jumped into action, raising awareness, and then learning to assist efforts to buy freedom for captured slaves—an action which would quickly become controversial. John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International-USA (whom Jacobs refers to as the “real hero, a sort of Indiana Jones”), created an “underground railroad” leveraging an existing indigenous peace treaty between friendly Arabs and their African Dinka neignbors: the Dinka would let Arab herdsmen water their cattle on Dinka wetlands in exchange for retrieving their women and children, enslaved in the north. Eibner and Jacobs collected cash to amplify this arrangement. The price for redeeming a slave, he said, ranged from $50 - $80 a person.

Initially, Jacobs and the AASG faced some opposition from various communities and human rights groups. He believes this was due to the politically incorrect nature of this particular slave trade. It was not Western whites oppressing blacks, but rather—Arab Muslims oppressing blacks. For his tactic of bringing former Sudanese slaves into American black churches in order to raise awareness, Jacobs received death threats. “The Muslim Brotherhood targets the black community, and the only time I ever got death threats was when we were bringing [former slaves] into black churches. [The threats] would say, ‘I don’t care what else you do, stay away from the black churches.’”

Jacobs and the AASG were even attacked by Louis Farrakhan, who openly denied the slavery in Sudan, later to his own embarrassment. After Eibner brought Reverend Al Sharpton to Sudan to witness the events for himself, Farrakhan was quieted.

Soon, word began to spread. Major newspapers ran columns, news networks ran the story, and an unlikely left-right coalition was formed; it included Pat Robertson, and Barney Frank. “We didn’t put them in the same room,” Jacobs smiled, “but that’s the way it should be.”

“Slavery’s not about right or left, it’s about right or wrong.”

Then, news of the conflict reached President George W. Bush. That, Jacobs says, was a game changer. Bush marshaled a peace agreement between the two sides, which they signed in 2005. Last June, more than 98% of the population in South Sudan voted to secede and form their own country. Israel became one of the first countries in the world to recognize South Sudan’s independence, announcing its recognition within 24 hours. Israeli officials later hinted that the Jewish state had helped the Southern African resistance—with arms.

Click photo to download. Caption: Charles Jacobs with South Sudanese president Salva Kiir. Credit: Courtesy Charles Jacobs

Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, reportedly told a senior member of the Likud party that South Sudan would establish an embassy in Jerusalem (a controversial act, given its disputed claim as the capital of Israel). Then, during Kiir’s first official visit to Israel in December, he acknowledged Israel’s role in the creation of his country. “Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kiir have formed a close relationship. This alliance could be vital to both countries, Jacobs says. Israel can offer South Sudan assistance in health, education, agricultural development, and defense. South Sudan can prove to be a valuable ally in the region when Israel has few; it also has access to natural resources, including oil, and represents an obstacle to the spread of Islamism.

Still, even though the people of South Sudan now have a state, Jacobs’s work, and that of the AASG, is not yet complete. Thirty thousand slaves still remain in the north, and according to Jacobs, the Christian solidarity movement has pledged to redeem them. He is currently seeking one or two donors, who, for the price of $80 a person, might be able to emancipate the remaining slaves.

“Can you imagine,” Jacobs muses, “someone could have on their tomb stone, ‘I freed thirty thousand slaves, what did you do, my friend?’”

Once all the slaves return home, Jacobs plans to continue his work. He is currently forming an Israel-South Sudan friendship society, to assist in the relationship between the two countries, and is continuing to work with the recently emancipated slaves.

According to their custom, they burn all of the clothes they wore as slaves in order to forget their experience. Yet Jacobs feels that as a Jewish man, he is in a unique position to help them embrace, and move passed their tragedy.

“What we do as Jews, and it makes us a strong nation, is remember our time in slavery,” he says. “We actually try to get [the former South Sudanese slaves] to do a seder every year, so that they would review what happened to them, because that makes us strong.” 

The Jewish people and the black people of Sudan have a strong cultural relationship, Jacobs says. Both were slaves, both were redeemed, and both came out of slavery to form a new nation. It’s a relationship, valuable to both, which he intends on fostering.

Posted on April 3, 2012 and filed under Features.