Next week includes two dates that changed the way we in the Jewish community view ourselves. On Dec. 6, spearheaded by Freedom 25, a coalition of organizations involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, we mark the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington, the 250,000-strong demonstration that sent a resounding – and successful – message to the Soviet Union that led to the release of a captive Jewish community. Almost exactly 46 years earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war against Nazi Germany and Japan. Out of the war emerged the international human rights conventions that remain in effect today.
Together, these dates taught us two important lessons. When Jews unite with a single voice – as we did in 1987 – we have tremendous power. And, after World War II, we will never again allow the world to remain silent while others perish through genocide. In short, we learned that it is within our power as Jews to protect ourselves and others.
Since the early 2000s, the Jewish community has played a key role in Save Darfur, an alliance of more than 100 faith-based organizations united to end the crisis in Darfur. Now another African country desperately needs the resolve and commitment of the American Jewish community.
Over the past weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lesser known intractable conflict has taken a turn for the worse. The rebel force M23 has advanced into the city of Goma, leaving behind a path of destruction, mutilation and death. Well-armed and ruthless, M23 fighters have captured and cut power to large sections of Goma with minimal resistance from the U.N. peacekeeping and Congolese forces in the region.
Bloodshed in the DRC is not a recent phenomenon. It is the home of the longest and deadliest conflict since World War II. During its course, millions have been internally displaced and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries – all because they came from the wrong ethnic group. In the last few years, HIAS has set up operations in East Africa, both in Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda, home to growing refugee populations from Burundi, Somalia, Eritrea and Congo.
This summer when I visited, I met refugees who told stories that defy the imagination. I met one young Congolese boy who hasn’t uttered a word in the two years since he witnessed the murder of his grandmother by machete-wielding rebel forces. I met a Congolese mother who gave birth after being raped by armed militia members. Taken into sexual slavery, she resisted when the troops tried to force her into incest with her brother. As punishment, her baby was ripped from her and today, she has no idea if he is even alive.
The depth of psychological damage and need among the survivors of this war is nearly bottomless. Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, HIAS provides psychosocial services to refugee families and children as they try to heal their souls and rebuild their shattered lives. And the depth of moral depravity that caused this damage is nearly unfathomable. Hearing their stories, I knew that HIAS, a 130-year-old refugee agency, cannot sit out this crisis.
We Jews are taught that we are responsible for ourselves and for others. We likewise are commanded by God to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. Increasingly, this responsibility is growing among the global Jewish conscience. On November 11, 2012, during his keynote address to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, the leader of the Union of Reform Judaism affirmed the importance of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Rabbi Rick Jacobs posed the rhetorical question: “Which is the ‘more Jewish’ act: welcoming the Sabbath bride or welcoming the refugee who has fled persecution?”
The oft-repeated biblical commandment of welcoming and protecting the stranger has much historical context. According to Joshua (9:3-27) and throughout Jewish history, Jewish and non-Jews refugees together fled drought, famine, slavery, persecution and invaders. The duty of protecting strangers vulnerable to xenophobic violence was an important principle for Jews during biblical times and remains so today. So many centuries later, we continue to see ruthless violence against innocents, and increasingly, we broaden the Jewish responsibility to help those most in need far beyond our own community.
This month, as we reflect on the Soviet Jewry movement and the United States’ entry into World War II, let’s come together as a community and demand that our government redirects its attention to the DRC. As Jews, we need to do this to protect others – and, in so doing, to protect ourselves.
Mark Hetfield is the President and CEO of HIAS, the global migration agency of the American Jewish Community. HIAS is one of the participating members of Freedom25.