Although his job is in Jersey City, John Atkins, a numbers cruncher for a financial firm, started his workday one morning last week outside Rockefeller Center.
Joining about 75 protesters, from high schoolers to senior citizens, Atkins, in his 20s, slipped a black T-shirt — adorned with the NBC logo and the Olympic rings and the words “Darfur/NBC/Not Being Covered” — over his head, marched to a fenced-in protest area across from outdoor set of the “Today Show,” then spent an hour handing out brochures to bypassing pedestrians and shouting slogans like “NBC, We Want More, Tell The Truth About Darfur.”
The rally, organized by American Jewish World Service, was the latest salvo in the weeks before the start of the upcoming Beijing Olympics, taking aim at the human rights record of the Chinese government and at the television network that will broadcast the Games.
The so-called “Genocide Olympics” have become a Jewish issue.
Spurred by a boycott petition initiated by two New York rabbis, and by public pressure on NBC applied by AJWS, parts of the Jewish community have engaged in a debate over tactics as the Aug. 8 opening of the Summer Games approach. All condemn the human rights policies of China, but some favor the Jewish tourists’ boycott of the Games advocated by prominent Modern Orthodox Rabbis Haskel Lookstein and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. Others, however, including the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, support a more moderate approach, such as President George W. Bush’s avoidance of the opening ceremonies or other “symbolic” measures.
Despite differing approaches, American Jewry “has stepped to the forefront” on this issue, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA executive director.
His organization, which did not support a tourist boycott of the Games, sponsored a recent conference call in which officials of local Jewish community relations councils around the country took part. Their consensus, he said, was that “the Jewish community should be [taking a stand against Chinese behavior] as part of a wider net of people,” not as the lead lobbying force.
China, clearly supportive of Sudan, is itself not accused of acting as a major human rights violator, leading to a divided response in the Jewish community, Rabbi Gutow said. “There’s more than one side to this issue — China is not the aggressor of a genocide.”
While the boycott petition apparently did not convince Jewish tourists to cancel their travel plans to Beijing, it was a success, said Rabbi Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.
“We were out to make a point to the Jewish community and to Americans in general that rabbis of all denominations are not only concerned with Shabbat and kashrut and other important ritual matters, but that we are also deeply concerned with human rights issues. We wanted to make a statement. The point was to raise people’s consciousness” about the China-Sudan issue.
Nearly 200 rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, of all denominations, signed the petition.
“That’s a pretty big statement,” Rabbi Lookstein said.
Jewish organizations and prominent members of the Jewish community have played leading roles in the effort that criticizes China for its oppressive treatment of Tibet, provision of missiles to Syria and Iran, close ties with Hamas, and especially for its support of the genocidal regime in Sudan responsible for the ongoing killings in the Darfur region.
And while AJWS, usually identified on the progressive end of the Jewish political spectrum, has served as a leader in the campaign to pressure China before the Olympics, the issue has revealed unexpected fault lines in parts of American Jewry — several Orthodox Jews have taken leadership positions in a boycott drive that encourages Jewish fans to stay away from Beijing during the Games, while other Orthodox organizations have opposed the call for a boycott.
And several secular-oriented Jewish defense organizations have also come out against a boycott.
Past social issues, such as civil rights and recognition of Turkish responsibility for the Armenian Genocide, traditionally found the defense organizations taking activist positions (engaged in civil rights and supportive of the Armenian position) and Orthodox Jewry taking more cautious positions (hesitant to become involved in civil rights, reluctant to criticize pro-Israel Turkey).
Jewish positions on the Beijing Olympics issue, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, are largely determined not by religious or political affiliation, but by participants’ background in Jewish activism.
Rabbis Lookstein and Greenberg, who initiated the petition urging Jews to boycott the Olympics in China, and Rabbi Avi Weiss, who supported their campaign, are veterans of the Soviet Jewry movement that worked for the release of Jews from the USSR. All are Orthodox, as is Simcha Felder, a City Council member who took part in a protest rally outside NBC headquarters earlier this year.
“Having endured the bitter experience of abandonment by our presumed allies during the Holocaust,” the boycott petition states, “we feel a particular obligation to speak out against injustice and persecution today.”
The statement, signed by nearly 200 rabbis from all the major denominations, increased the prominence of the China-Darfur issue in the Jewish community, Sarna said. “It was very low on the list of issues in Jewish life until [the two rabbis] made it an issue. They felt they had to put it on the map.
“This is a case where the folks who were the pioneers of the Soviet Jewry movement feel there is a special consistency” with the human rights issues raised by China’s policies, Sarna says. “Those on the other side are certainly sympathetic [to the rabbis’ concerns], but they happen to think this [call for a boycott] is the wrong tactic.”
The “modest successes” of the U.S. and Israel in convincing China to participate in an effort to isolate Iran until Tehran ends its suspected nuclear weapons program is another factor to be considered by Jewish organizations in this country, JTA reported.
Israel, whose political and economic ties with China have grown stronger in recent years, is sending a 40-athlete delegation to Beijing, and the president of the Israeli Olympic Committee said Israel “will continue to act towards keeping politics outside of sports in general and the Olympic Games specifically.”
Organizations in the United States that opposed a boycott included the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.
“The difference between the Nazi government and the Chinese government are not mere differences of degree,” said a statement issued by Agudah, the umbrella group of fervently Orthodox Jews. “They are fundamental differences of kind. For Jewish leaders, of all people, to mention the two in the same breath is highly inappropriate.”
“This is not a disagreement about goals — this is a disagreement about tactics to achieve agreed-upon goals,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union Institute for Public Affairs. “There are always differences over tactics.”
The OU’s position on a boycott is not influenced by the organization’s financial relationship with China, Diament said. A growing number of foods produced in China have come under OU supervision in recent years, and kashrut supervision is a major source of income for the OU.
“The OU’s positions on public policy matters are determined by the OU leadership’s best understanding of the interpretation and application of Torah values and the interests of our community,” he said. “In my 12 years with the OU, there has not yet been an instance where the OU’s public policy position was determined” by financial considerations.
“We’re opposed to boycotts in general,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. “Jews have too frequently been the subject of boycotts.”
AJWS, a co-founder of the Save Darfur Coalition, is also not “calling for a boycott,” said Jodi Jacobson, director of advocacy. It, instead, has urged Bush to decline to attend the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, has joined the Investors Against Genocide divestment project and has focused on NBC, which will broadcast 1,400 hours of action and feature reports during the Games.
“We believe that it is more productive to focus on the levers of power. We believe that the media have a responsibility for alerting people about what is happening in Sudan,” Jacobson said. “The Olympics provide a platform for the [Chinese] regime to have its own public relations coup.”
“More coverage of the tragic plight of the people of Darfur is appropriate,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger wrote in a letter to NBC News President Steve Capus last month. “From the standpoint of journalistic integrity, NBC needs to devote substantial time to China’s human rights record during the Olympic Games. NBC’s massive promotion of the Beijing Games will serve to buttress China’s image — and may indirectly appear to be an endorsement of China’s policies — unless the network balances this promotion with coverage of China’s role in Sudan.”
The letter encouraged NBC to “devote at least 100 minutes of prime time public service announcements or other similar programming” to the Darfur issue before and during the Games.
AJWS did not receive a response from the network, prompting last week’s rally during the Today Show, Jacobson said.
John Atkins, who usually shows up for work at 9 a.m., came in a little late that morning. After shouting and passing out information about Darfur, he took the subway to the PATH train.
“It’s a cause I believe in,” said Atkins. “I’m glad I went.”