The Tribe of Levi

Holiness & power.

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Displaced Persons & Refuge

While there are important moral differences between fugitive murderers and civilians fleeing violent conflict, the Torah's treatment of the Levite refuge offers trenchant lessons about the protection of the displaced today. In the best of circumstances, providing haven for those displaced by conflict is respected as an inviolable, internationally-shared commitment. But such sacred commitments are not always honored--leaving internally displaced persons (IDPs) vulnerable to the violence at their heels. Power, unfortunately, is sometimes required to protect the powerless.

Such has been the desperate situation for at least one million IDPs in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo caught in the fighting between rebel and army forces. Thousands have been serially displaced as fighting repeatedly forces them to find new places of refuge. In a horrifying episode, about 150 civilians were murdered in the town of Kiwanja after rebels had emptied and razed local IDP camps. Night raids in another major camp by ''heavily armed and unpaid soldiers'' make life ''precarious'' for the thousands there. And the situation is dire for women and girls whose displacement leaves them especially vulnerable to rape--routinely used as a weapon in this war.

While there is hope that the crisis will abate with the arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, the prospect of renewed fighting brings grave concerns for civilians. In the face of such insecurity, it is critical to have at the ready a strong, appropriately-resourced peacekeeping force to protect them. Reinforcement of the UN's DRC mission is a positive step, but civilians remain vulnerable during the months required for deployment. And, as Human Rights Watch observes, the mission's tremendous failures--recent and historic--point to the need for both more forces and their tactical reorganization.

Power & Hope

Upon entering Israel, six of the cities assigned to the tribe of Levi were designated ''cities of refuge,'' replacing the desert asylum (Numbers 35:6). By this time the Levites were firmly ensconced in God's service, their bellicose legacy worn thin: The shelter afforded by their presence would have been in deference then to their sacred devotion. We can hope to see such a transition in DRC, so that the security of IDPs will be respected as a sacred value. Until then, sadly, it is power that will likely be required to help civilians survive a brutally profane conflict.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.