By Miriam Apter
In an old episode of the television series “The West Wing,” President Bartlett – struggling with his foreign policy – asks, “Why is a Kuhdanese life worth less to me than an American life?”
This question has followed me in the years since that episode aired in 2003. I was challenged with it along with the other students in my fellowship as we prepared to lobby members of the United States Congress on the situation in Darfur and South Sudan.
Before we left, family and friends would ask why we were going to Washington, D.C. and the response would often end a conversation. “Oh, that’s still going on?” they would ask about the conflict in Darfur, or if I was lucky they would ask why I cared. I wanted to quote the character of President Bartlett and ask them in turn, why a Darfuri life is worth less to them than an American life.
As a group from Yeshiva University, we needed to be prepared to answer those questions from the Representatives and Senators as well. They would want to know why this should be on their agenda, and what we proposed that they do. One staffer shared with us budgetary concerns for any sort of foreign aid. We didn’t feel we were in the position to suggest a monetary solution, as a group of undergraduate students whose annual student activity fee (which funded trips like this one) could support a Sudanese family for a year.
We arrived at the Washington, D.C office of United to End Genocide on Thursday, January 12, 2012, to be briefed in the span of 45 minutes, on eight years of genocide and decades of war. The team at United to End Genocide summarized the conflict, provided us with talking points, and encouraged us to make it personal; and that was the key that opened up a lifetime of background and preparation. As a group of Jewish college students, most of us grew up with the taught knowledge of the Holocaust being strongly emphasized. Many of us had grandparents who were survivors, and grew up questioning why so few people acted on their behalf. When it came to making it personal, genocide is a strong part of our collective identity and memory. The connection between the genocide in Darfur and our own identification with the Holocaust was one that we had explored in our fellowship in the months leading up to our lobbying trip. We worked to raise money for an organization called Triangles of Truth, which raised money for victims of the genocide in Darfur in memory of victims of the Holocaust.
Collectively, our group had over fifteen appointments with Congressional Representatives spanning eight states, with each of us meeting with the office of the representative of our own hometown. We met with a variety of people, with a wide range of opinions on foreign policy and varying levels of knowledge about the situation in Darfur. Some of us began meetings educating the staffer from the beginning of the conflict in Darfur. Some simply did not know that the conflict continued, and others had assumed that South Sudan was safe since its secession.
Others met with staffers of Representatives who were active in authoring or signing bills for Darfur in 2007, and we were there to remind them of the passion they had five years ago and to ask them to renew that vigor when the new bills were proposed. The most memorable was when we walked into one office and upon spotting the skullcap on the head of one of my classmates, the staffer immediately asked “I assume you are here about Israel?” The staffer was stunned when we explained that we were there to advocate for the citizens of a country one thousand miles south of Israel.
The relationship that our Jewish identity gave us to our cause was the important piece of our lobbying experience. As a group of students from different disciplines, we didn’t have the answers to the conflict. We had our recommendations and our suggestions that we learned from United to End Genocide, but they also needed to see the passion. To hear that a Darfuri life was worth as much to us as an American life, and that as Americans and as Jews, we care.
The author is a political science student at Yeshiva University.