April 6, 2011
Boston – Only moments after gaining their freedom, 150 slaves were eating matzah, hard-boiled eggs and sipping wine as part of the demonstration Seder in Aweil, Southern Sudan led by Rabbi Joseph Polak. Their freedom was secured by Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an abolitionist group that over the past two decades helped South Sudanese to liberate nearly 100,000 of their countrymen. An estimated 35,000 continue serving their masters in Northern Sudan.
“At the time when Jews around the world prepare to celebrate our own liberation from slavery, tens of thousands of Sudanese are still being enslaved not that far from Egypt,” said Rabbi Polak, director of the Hillel House at Boston University. “That is why it is incumbent upon Jews to help free these modern-day slaves,” he added.
Newly freed slaves are eating matzahChattel slavery, a centuries old phenomenon, persists in Sudan. During the second stage of Sudan’s Civil war (1983-2005), a conflict between the African Christian/tribalist South and the Arab Muslim North, slavery was used to terrorize the Southern population. Various Northern regimes sent its soldiers and allied Arab militias to destroy Southern villages. As compensation, they were encouraged to take women and children as slaves, which some estimate numbered up to 200,000.
CSI’s mission comes at a historic moment for Southern Sudan: last January nearly 99% of its people voted to create their own independent nation. The declaration is expected for July 9th, 2011.
A total of 354 slaves were freed over the course of few days.
Polak interviewed some of the newly freed slaves. “They showed me how their limbs had been maimed by their master’s machetes. The women described how their genitals had been mutilated, and how these masters had taught their own children to be contemptuous of them because they (the mothers) were black and because they were concubines,” he said.
The Rabbi shared with the slaves some of the Pesach practices and encouraged them to commemorate the day of their liberation.
“We were slaves thousands of years ago right up the Nile from here, in Egypt. God heard our cries and saw our tears and redeemed us. We were made slaves again sixty years ago in Europe. This time nobody saved us. Millions died. You are very special people because through Christian Solidarity International God is redeeming you today,” he told the slaves.
The Seder was organized by Dr. Charles Jacobs, named by the Forward as one of America’s top 50 Jewish leaders. Jacobs heads the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), Boston-based human rights non-profit that partners with the CSI.
“We are determined to eradicate the scourge of modern-day bondage in Sudan and doing everything we can to bring awareness to these people’s incredible suffering,” said Jacobs. “We hope that having this remarkable Seder will prompt Jews and non-Jews to act,” he added.
The freed slaves joined Polak in singing “Dayenu,” a traditional Pesach song that means “it would have been enough.” The Rabbi altered the words to reflect the experience of these newly emancipated people. “Had you been freed, it would have been enough,” he sang. “Had you been delivered across the border, it would have been enough. Had you been delivered into a newly freed nation, it would have been enough.”
Videos of interviews with freed slaves are available upon request.