By Nechama Carlsen
The American Jewish community must recognize the extremity of the Uyghur’s situation to understand the glaring issue of our communal silence. Understanding requires painting a brutal and painful image. Picture the systematic destruction of European Jewry in addition to the strength of modern technology and geopolitical power. Sadly, this is not a terrifying hypothetical. This is the reality for Uyghurs in modern China.
The Uyghur (Wee-Ghur, spelled either Uighur or Uyghur) people are an ethnic and religious minority in China, Muslim and of Turkic descent. As such, while historically native to the land, they never fit into sinicized China. East Turkestan became the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Zone where they should be allowed to practice Islam freely under Chinese rule.
In August 2018, the United Nations Overhead Committee on the Human Rights Council received evidence of the forced removal of at least one million Uyghurs to “detention centers” in Xinjiang. Few western news outlets spoke of the issue until late September. The BBC reported evidence proving over one million Uyghurs from Xinjiang were rounded up for “re-education.” When interviewed, survivors spoke of brutal torture, forced labor, and disappearing families. Later, in 2019, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council heard more information from the Chinese Tribunal. It was confirmed that Uyghurs were being deported to forced labor camps and horrifically, were victims of organ harvesting. In response, Beijing simply declared that they had stopped taking organs from prisoners in 2015. Yet, no proof exists that they dismantled the system cited to have been used against the Falun Gong, another persecuted religious minority group.
This crisis has not gone completely unnoticed in the United States. After reports of forced labor and human rights violations, the U.S. seized 13 tons of human hair shipments from the Xinjiang region. Numerous women have spoken of cruel forced head shaving and drone footage confirms their testimonies.
The systematic cleansing of religious and ethnic minorities on a mass scale should absolutely horrify and persuade every Jew to demand intervention. The British Jewish community seems to be the first to discuss the genocidal programs against the Uyghur people, while “America is in its own quagmire” says JewsForUighurs, the growing British social media movement. Many British Jewish community leaders and individuals have been forward on the issue. One anonymous London Orthodox man has been posting statistics throughout the city since January. Moreover, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote publicly in an Instagram post, condemning the treatment of Uyghurs and discussing the Jewish obligation to stand up against this human rights crime. “When the world allows dehumanization of the Other, evil follows, as night follows day,” his post reads. Following the British community’s example, American Jews need to focus their attention on this issue, spread awareness, and demand intervention on behalf of the Uyghurs.
As generations pass between the birth of the phrase “never forget” and those who risk forgetting, we must stand now. We have a responsibility to learn, inform others, and condemn such crimes against humanity. We have an obligation to use our voices to impact the political bodies that represent us, both at home and internationally. In the words of the anonymous London activist, “We said, the world said, never again.”