Dont forget Darfur: Jews take strong stand at Olympic torch rally

They were an island of green in a sea of red and yellow.

With the Olympic torch passing through San Francisco on its way to Beijing, thousands lined the relay route April 9 to protest Chinese human rights abuses.

Among them were many hundreds of green-shirted activists protesting China’s complicity in the ongoing Darfur genocide. Though the Chinese occupation of Tibet was on the minds and signs of most protesters, the Save Darfur Coalition was not about to let this opportunity go by.

On this day, the eyes of the world were on San Francisco.

“It’s extraordinary that all the groups that have concerns about the human rights policies of China are together in a city with a great tradition of protest to bring the message,” said Ruth Messinger, president of the New York-based American Jewish World Service. “You can’t have an Olympics in a country that violates human rights of people all over the world unless you tell that country to change its policies.”

Messinger said China is complicit in the ongoing slaughter because it is the biggest supplier of munitions to the Sudanese government and it buys most of its imported oil from Sudan.

Agents of the Sudanese government are responsible for the death and displacement of millions of Darfuris. “China has become an enabler of this genocide,” Messinger added.

For four years, AJWS has supported multiple projects in Darfur and Chad, from health clinics to maternity labs to rape counselors.

With their banners and balloons, the Darfur protesters — including about a dozen Darfuri refugees — made their way to Embarcadero Plaza, just north of Market Street. They joined hundreds of chanting pro-Tibet protesters lining police barricades along the torch route.

Film actress Maria Bello (“A History of

Violence”) stood with them. She became active in the Darfur movement because of her Holocaust education during her college days.

“I became obsessed with the idea of genocide and how people could let this happen,” she said. “I felt from then on we were all complicit in World War II, and now we’re complicit in genocide in Darfur by not speaking up. It’s my duty as a human being to do so.”

Though the weather was excellent, Rabbi Lee Bycel did not have a sunny disposition. He remained too distressed by the hardships in Darfur to celebrate. As executive director of the western region for AJWS, he has been active in the Darfur movement for years, and frequently travels to the region.

He marked two of the last three Yom Kippur holidays in Chadian refugee camps.

“I always tell people I meet there that I work with a Jewish organization, and everyone hugs me and says ‘we love the Jewish people,'” noted Bycel, referring to the Muslims of north-central Africa. “People in a refugee camp see a white face, and then they know the world cares.”

Also among the protesters waiting for the Olympic torch to pass by was Berkeley novelist Michael Chabon, who says he has long been an ardent admirer of both the Olympic Games and Chinese culture. But he couldn’t give China a pass on its current human rights abuses.

“As a Jew, I’m passionately committed to the principle that there shouldn’t be any more genocide,” Chabon said. “As part of a people that experienced the worst genocide the world has ever seen, my sense of outrage [over Darfur] was immediate.”

Though the world has done little to stop the slaughter in Darfur, Chabon said China was uniquely complicit.

“In that region they are the world power,” he said. “They said they would put a stop to it. They publicly committed to ending the genocide, and it’s still going on. We need them to live up to their promises. They can stop it, and it wouldn’t be that hard.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.