We Must Not Forget the Uyghur People

“Never Again” Means “Never Again” for Anyone
January 25, 2024
Ethnic Uyghur girls wear traditional clothing as they stand outside a butcher shop on June 29, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” These are the words of God to Cain, regarding Abel,the brother he slayed. They could just as easily be the words of God to us regarding the plight of the Uyghur people, for their blood is on our hands if we continue to sit idly by as they are ethnically cleansed.

The Uyghur people are a Muslim minority in China, living in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The 12 million ethnic Uyghurs living in Xinjiang speak a language closely related to Turkish; they have a unique and beautiful culture. The Chinese government is trying to violently assimilate them. Indeed, it is nothing short of a cultural genocide. Though the struggle between the Uyghurs and the Chinese Communist Party is longstanding, it intensified dramatically in 2016, when Chen Quanguo was made head of the Xinjiang province; Quanguo made his name imposing draconian surveillance measures in Tibet, and soon brought his brutal approach to the Uyghur people. With his arrival, the persecution of the Uyghur people escalated almost overnight. In the years since, they have been routinely forced into so-called “reeducation camps.” While the Chinese government claims these camps are an effort to prevent terrorism, the reality is that these are concentration camps by another name: Mass-incarceration environments where prisoners suffer torture, assault, sterilization, brainwashing, and forced labor. The offenses that landed Uyghur inmates in these camps? Praying, visiting a mosque, attending a religious wedding — essentially, the Chinese government has criminalized the Muslim religion. These camps have held between 1 to 3 million Uyghurs in total, making theirs the largest mass-internment of an ethnic-religious minority since the Holocaust. The sexual violence is nightmarish: Forced sterilizations,sexual abuse and torture, gang rapes. Day by day, the possibility of future Uyghur generations is slipping away.

It is a testament to the totality of the horrors that in America, the parties are united on this issue: Both Democrats and Republicans are rightfully calling this violent forced assimilation a genocide. Promising measures have been taken to place sanctions on Chinese goods produced through Uyghur slave labor. But we must do more.

Like the blood of Abel calling out from the ground, the blood of the Uyghurs calls out to us. It is a sacred, biblical obligation to protect the lives of our Uyghur siblings. Lo ta’amod al dam reiecha, we are told in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” And surely, any religious-ethnic minority forced into camps must be our siblings. Not only is it a religious imperative to always take a stand against genocide, but it is also our obligation in the wake of the Holocaust to safeguard against history repeating. We must bring the world’s attention to the plight of the Uyghur people.

I can understand if, in reading this, you feel a certain cynicism. Some may ask, what can we, the Jewish people, really do to stop China, especially given how many human rights violations they have? As Jews, we are an ethnic-religious minority ourselves! How can we take a stand against the second largest super power in the world? Well, for one, we’ve done it before: Let us be inspired by the Soviet Jewry movement, in which American Jewish organizations successfully created the political pressure that forced the Soviet Union to finally allow Jewish emigration. The success of this campaign showed us that as American Jews, we have political muscle. Let us use that muscle to help save the Uyghur people.

Here’s what we can do: In April, we can attend the conference organized by The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. This conference will bring meaningful and necessary attention to the crisis facing the Uyghur people. (To get on the early list email: uyghur@eliewieselfoundation.org). You might wonder how — when Israel is at war and antisemitism is on the rise — can I justify advocating for the human rights of a Muslim minority. I take my inspiration from Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory. A Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, he demonstrated a model of balancing universalism and particularism. He founded the Eli Wiesel Foundation under the belief that, in his words, “We are all human, we have the same rights and the same obligations.” Professor Wiesel fought antisemitism, most notably, by showing the world what Jewish values looked like on the world stage and that is needed now more than ever. From his example, we can learn that even now — perhaps, especially now — it is vital for us to be on the side of human rights.

Today, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity is run by his inspiring son, Elisha Wiesel. Elisha is a wise and strategic moral leader who has taken on the mantle of his father’s moral legacy, balancing a commitment to Jewish security with a commitment to global human rights. We should all of us be marching behind Elisha Wiesel and the foundation as a whole, especially those of us in Jewish leadership.

The conference in April will be the most important convening to date on the issue of the Uyghur genocide, bringing together many organizations and individuals working on the cause. How poignant that it falls just a few days before Passover. I can think of no better way to approach a spiritual meditation on Exodus — the story of an oppressed, ethnic-religious minority — than to put our heads and hearts together on enabling deliverance for the Uyghur people. I will see you there.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is an educator, activist, and the author of 25 books on Jewish ethics. 


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