At the 10th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival last week, the most memorable films for me were in the Holocaust genre. The temerity and moxie of the rescuers, the ignorance and bystander mentality of the rest are always common threads in these movies.
During the Holocaust most U.S. Jewish citizens trusted that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing all he could to save the Jews of Europe. In fact, as the films at the Atlanta festival illustrated, FDR only placated Jewish advocates, did little if anything to change the fate of the Jewish victims and refugees, and was transparent in his inaction. Each time the lights came back on I was haunted by the fact that very little has changed since a Holocaust survivor coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1948. As a founding member of Georgia Coalition to Prevent Genocide and as a private citizen I find the status quo unacceptable
In 2010, President Obama has chosen to deliver his State of the Union Address on January 27, a date that also marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Will he be the first president to declare a plan to abolish genocide, the most egregious of all crimes, and act on his commitment?
Will he specifically lead the United States and call on other world leaders to redouble their efforts to prevent atrocities and another bloody war in Sudan, where the head of state is an indicted war criminal and genocide has been ongoing since 2004?
According to a December 3 survey last year by Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations most Americans support ending genocide and the use of force if an ethnic group in Africa were threatened by genocide.
The crime of genocide is not inevitable, and clearly, prevention is much cheaper than intervention. Prevention would ensure that when there is political will to respond, the U.S. is prepared to do it more effectively. In December of 2008 the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by Madeline Albright and William Cohen, released a blueprint policy that the US could put in place to increase the capacity to prevent and respond more effectively to genocide and mass atrocities. The price tag would be $250 million a year – less than a dollar for every American each year – and a far cry from the billions spent on humanitarian aid in Darfur alone.
Sudan has a long history of bloody wars. Violence and political tensions in the South and border areas was up in 2009. There is an impending risk of more atrocities through the upcoming national elections in April. Many signs point to the South seceding and forming an independent country, a choice granted to southerners through the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the ruling parties of the North and South, but even this landmark peace deal is very fragile. While President Obama has appointed a Special Envoy for Sudan, he has not brought together a meaningful international coalition.
There will be no dearth of important and intelligent people and groups advising President Obama on which priorities he should choose for his second year in office. So far it seems we have not learned from historical precedents. But among all the voices, President Obama should listen to his two immediate predecessors. It’s been well reported that President Clinton’s greatest regret is not acting in 1994 to prevent “hundreds of thousands” of Rwandan deaths. Similarly, shortly after leaving office President Bush lamented not being able to stop what his government called “genocide” in Darfur.
My hope is that our current president doesn’t choose FDR’s approach, the one I saw portrayed in the movies at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival last week. Now is the time for President Obama to build a different and more transparent legacy.
Melanie Nelkin is a 2009 recipient of Genocide Intervention Network’s Carl Wilkens Fellowship and the chair of the Georgia Coalition to Prevent Genocide.