This article was first published in The Jewish Standard
February 4, 2011
By Heather Robinson
This week all eyes are on Egypt. It is uncertain who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak and what kind of government will be in power. But we should not miss other important developments. In a world where so few can truly be considered allies of the Jewish state, it is important to recognize and nurture genuine opportunities for alliance where they exist.
One such opportunity is with the people of South Sudan, who have voted by 99 percent for secession from the government of Omar al Bashir, according to initial reports.
Last month’s historic vote, in which the people of South Sudan, mostly Christians and animists — practitioners of native religions — declared independence from the country’s largely Arab Muslim North, stands as a shining example of peaceful self-assertion on the part of a people long denied basic human rights.
Final results of the vote are expected later this month. The United States and Israel should be among the first countries to recognize the nation to be born. Jews worldwide should extend a hand of welcome and support to a people with the courage to stand up for their liberty and their survival. Israel’s government is “glad the referendum went smoothly and is waiting for the official results to recognize Southern Sudan,” according to a spokeswoman from the Israeli consulate.
The fact that these people — the Southern Sudanese — are natural allies to Israel is all the more reason to support their aspirations.
They have suffered great oppression at the hands of Muslim extremists, most recently Bashir, who sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur. Since the 1950s, millions of Southern Sudanese have been killed through slaughter and the withholding of food aid. Thousands have been enslaved.
A strong religious and racial component to the conflict led some Northerners, who consider themselves Semites rather than blacks, to rationalize enslaving darker-skinned Africans. “To them, a black person by nature is an ‘abid,’ which is a slave,” according to Simon Deng, a prominent Southern Sudanese-American human rights advocate and escaped slave who lives in the Bronx.
Deng says the people of Southern Sudan consider Israel to be “their brother” and the United States “their father.” It is not uncommon, he says, to see the star of David prominently displayed in homes in Southern Sudan. Asked why his people consider themselves friends of Israel he said, “It is tied to Christianity, to the Bible, and goes down from Moses. Even though the South Sudanese did not have Moses to rescue them [from the Islamists].”
Human rights advocate Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to combating modern-day slavery, and co-founder of the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, echoes Deng’s perspective.
Jacobs, who just returned from Sudan, said of the Southern Sudanese, “When they found out I was Jewish, they said, “Oh! One of the chosen people. Welcome to my new country.”
Jacobs, who has been working with the nonprofit Christian Solidarity International to emancipate thousands of enslaved human beings in the wake of the vote, points out that Southern Sudanese were enslaved “600 miles from where Jews were enslaved also,” and that, as was the case during the early days of Israel’s formation, South Sudan will need to absorb many traumatized refugees and build an infrastructure.
At present, 3,000 Southern Sudanese who crossed the Sinai desert to escape oppression live in Israel, where many work in hotels and several attend Hebrew University. Despite some initial resistance and missteps on the part of Israel’s government, Israel’s human rights community has prevailed in recent years in the decision to grant them temporary sanctuary. Their gratitude to Israel for shelter during their time of need is immense, according to Deng.