If you read last week’s blog you know I trotted along to a protest against the Chinese concentration camps for the Uyghur Muslims, explaining to the only other person there, a young Muslim girl, that “What happened to the Jews in Germany, mustn’t happen to the Uyghurs.”
What you don’t know is that whilst trying to find the protest, I emailed the organisers for help. An hour later I got a cheery email. “Hey, yes the protest is still taking place! Unfortunately, I can’t make it, so I want you guys to just get together and protest x”. Unsigned. Clearly written by a robot! I liked the kiss, though. We never found the protest. Was it for real?
My wife suggested the Chinese had put out a spoof advert to entrap Chinese dissenters and threaten their families. She pointed me to an Observer article describing how China uses social media for social control. She said,
you’ll never get a visa to China,
so that blows our retirement trip!
Remember how scared my young Muslim co-protester was of being observed? Makes sense now.
Was my wife right? I searched for the sponsoring organisation “Humna”, their email address Humankhan678@gmail.com on line, on Facebook and set up a twitter account. Nothing. However, I found the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which had tweeted my blog! They are doing good work. I also read heart-rending tweets on Uyghur Bulletin like “please find my brother” or “release my little sister”. I contacted Eventbrite, who advertised the demonstration. They are trying to trace their original contact.
I also wondered why the world’s response to this genocide was so muted. Why had no Muslim nation had objected to the UN about the Uyghur persecution whilst 18 had signed letters supporting China? My son studies geography. He explained this was due to China’s deep involvement in developing economic infrastructure along the “New Silk Roads” as part of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” The silence also reflects these nations’ poor human rights records and their understanding for China’s prioritisation of social stability over individual rights.
However, Muslim nations are one thing, Muslim citizens of other countries are another. Twitter revealed many concerned individuals. I looked on-line to see what was happening in Britain. The Muslim Council of Britain held an event in February. A petition to Parliament, started by a Michael Simon, had gained 2727 signatures (2728 now!). October’s “Muslim Vibe” platform’s lead article was on the extreme abuse of women in the camps. And there is some Jewish action! Every Tuesday, 6-7pm, a lone Orthodox man, Andrew, protests outside the Chinese Embassy.
The Rene Cassin organisation, the “Jewish Voice for Human Rights”, held an event in May, joined Uyghur Muslim refugees in June for iftar after the Ramadan fast, and presented evidence to Parliament last month.
They are right to do something. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour,” says Hillel (Talmud Babli, Shabbat 31a). We know what it is like to suffer this way with none to speak for us, so we should speak when others suffer the same. In this spirit, the kiddushim on shabbat recall “going out from Egypt,” and mandate rest ‘for your servant (avdecha).’ Why? To emphasise that we should remember we were once slaves (avadim) in Egypt, unable to rest, and ensure that our workers can rest. Hillel also says (Avot 1;14), “If I am not for me, who is for me? If I am just for me, what am I?”
Hillel’s aphorisms are based on “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Vayikra 19 v 18). Rabbi Akiva calls this “a ‘Klal Gadol’ (a great rule) in the Torah”. “Do not stand over the blood of your neighbour, I am Hashem” (Vayikra 19 v 15). Rashi’s commentary is explicit that this means indifference to your neighbour’s impending fate potentially renders one’s own life forfeit.
The world’s relative abandonment of the Uyghurs in the face of China’s might speaks both to our history and fundamental teachings. It exemplifies what Eliezer Berkovitz, modern orthodox philosopher, calls “Is’ history”, the interplay of power and economics. The Jewish voice, he says, speaks for “‘Ought’ History’,” what life should be like. And remember the midrash on this week’s parasha (Bereshit Rabbah 39.1), where the world is likened to a “palace on fire”, whose owner, God, does not put the fire out, but leaves this to man; a clear allegory that it’s man’s responsibility to right the world’s wrongs.
So, what should we do? Isolated protests and breaking a fast with Uyghur refugees are a start but what about BDS (Boycott, Sanction and Disinvest)? A difficult issue for Jews! There are many regimes with terrible human rights records, civil wars or territorial disputes. It is easy to oversimplify complex histories. You can’t BDS half the world! However, I do know one person who won’t visit Spain because of the Inquisition!
Personally, I wouldn’t boycott Iranian or Palestinian academics, I would rather engage. Investment or trade conditional on policy change might achieve more than BDS, which often disproportionately affects the poor. But, we are dealing with genocide, not an ordinary territorial dispute or war, which, I suggest, tips the balance in favour, if not of BDS, then of carefully crafted action.
It is a particular genius of Judaism that it does not require the world to become Jewish. It only requires observance of the 7 Noachide commandments. China breaks every single one in these camps. There is murder. There is theft, of people’s liberty. ‘Idolatry’, through supreme loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Sexual immorality via widespread rape. ‘Blasphemy’ in its modern counterpart of religious repression. There are no ‘courts of justice’ passing sentence on internees. And what else is torture but ‘tearing a limb from a living animal’?
China however, wants to be part of the community of nations. It is sensitive to international opinion, so what would hurt it?
Why not take a leaf out of the book
of the old 35’s campaign for Soviet Jewry?
Disrupt Chinese cultural and sporting events? Just suppose, when the Chinese Symphony Orchestra played abroad, demonstrators leafleted concert-goers, interrupted the event and glued themselves to the piano?!
What about the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022? China clearly violates the Opympic charter’s human rights provisions. The regime may be vulnerable to pressure as the Olympics approach.
Could we boycott Huawei for its repressive surveillance in Xinjiang or Uniqlo clothing for using forced Uyghur labour? What about visa refusal for selected officials and departments?
What should the Jews do? We cannot have a repeat of Nazi Germany.
With whom do we partner?
Whom do we lobby?
Will it be “good for the Jews”, bringing us closer to Muslim communities, or encourage BDS against Israel?
As Hillel says, “if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14), so I am starting in my own backyard with an email to my University’s Islamic and Jewish Societies, suggesting they campaign together to “Close the Camps!”
I am a doctor. How should medical organisations respond to Chinese doctors harvesting organs and supervising torture? I’m asking the British Medical Association’s human rights section.
Let’s see what happens.
If Yiddishkeit is to be more than a dietary code and cosy tribal festival gatherings, it is time to bring Rabbis Hillel and Akiva into play.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
Oh, and I am going to join Andrew this Tuesday!