(April 23, 2012 / JNS)
The great Jewish historian, Salo W. Baron, famously criticized the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history, by which he meant the reduction of the Jewish experience to a series of gory persecutions. This view of the Jewish past often colors our sense of the Jewish present, with the result that we see ourselves as having few friends, or even none at all, in a hostile world which resents the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty after centuries when Jews were at the mercy of others.
Thinking this way can be dangerous. I say this not because I make light of the threat posed to Israel by Iran, say, or because I don’t regard anti-Semitism in Europe and in the Islamic world as a major problem. I say this because we shouldn’t allow the fixations of enemies to divert us from the reality that we do have friends—and that we owe these friends our support when they fall upon dark times.
This week, the Islamist regime that has ruled Sudan since coming to power through a military coup in 1989 declared a new war against the neighboring state of South Sudan. The newest member of the United Nations, South Sudan declared its independence in July 2011, following a referendum in which almost 100 per cent of participants opted to separate from the predominantly Arab and Muslim north. For nearly 30 years, Sudan waged a brutal war against the largely Christian, African south, in which around 2 million people lost their lives.
Jewish communities around the world, and especially here in North America, need to flex their muscles in support of South Sudan. The ethical imperative is clear, as anyone following the brutal campaign waged by the Sudanese regime in the Nuba mountains in recent weeks would be aware.
But there is also a political imperative. Israel was one of the first states to recognize South Sudan. At the end of 2011, Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s combative President, visited Israel and spoke of his wish to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. Israeli aid and development agencies, often assisted by Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee’s Africa Institute, have, over the years, played a major role in building up the South’s economy and infrastructure.
Hence, the bottom line is this: in a region filled to the brim with hateful enemies and fair-weather allies, South Sudan is the only state that can truly be called a friend of Israel. The origins of this friendship stretch back to the early years of the State of Israel, when David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, articulated a strategy known as the “Alliance of the Periphery,” whereby the non-Arab and non-Muslim populations in the Middle East—Kurds, Iranians, Lebanese Christians and so forth—were regarded as natural partners in countering the Arab campaign against the Jewish state.
Yet showing support for South Sudan in its hour of need is not Israel’s task alone. Jewish communities in the diaspora should also be advocating for a renewed “Alliance of the Periphery.” After all, when we hear the blood-curdling declamations of Sudan’s dictator, the indicted war criminal Omar al Bashir, against the “insects” running South Sudan, how can we not be stirred by the parallels with the Iranian regime’s anti-Israel rhetoric, or the fulminations against the “sons of pigs and monkeys” across the Islamic world, or even the dehumanizing verbal assaults by the Nazis upon the Jews?
Throughout much of the conflict over the last decade in the Darfur region of western Sudan, American Jews were a vital base of support and awareness. Synagogues and community centers across the country were draped in “Save Darfur” banners. When 100,000 people turned out for an April 2006 rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, a huge number of the participants were drawn from Jewish communities. There is no reason why this impressive solidarity should not be reignited for the people of South Sudan.
Only this time, we should be explicit that we support South Sudan because we are Jews. Their foes are also ours; for example, many of the organizations that traipse around American university campuses preaching hatred of Israel have also portrayed the Darfur campaign as a nefarious tool of Zionist influence, much to the glee of Sudan’s rulers, who quickly jumped on the bandwagon by claiming that talk of a genocide was a Zionist myth.
Sadly, Jews have a tendency to become nervous in such situations. Rather than celebrating our political influence, we seek to bury it behind inter-group and inter-faith coalitions. It is not that such coalitions are unwelcome; the problem is that many Jews apparently believe that the more universal a campaign is, the more acceptable it will be in the court of public opinion, and the less selfish we will look.
If we want to boost the pride of our friends, we need to boost the pride in ourselves. For the best coalition of all is still to be formed: one in which Jews, Kurds, Southern Sudanese, Lebanese Christians, Iranian democrats and others seeking to combat the malign influences of Islamism and Arab chauvinism gather under one roof, supporting each other as equals. As Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Ben Cohen is a senior columnist for JointMedia News Service. The New York Post, Fox News, PJ Media and other prominent media outlets have also published his commentaries on international politics. Cohen is president of The Ladder Group, a communications consultancy based in New York City.