I came to the head of the queue. The receptionist at London’s Chinese Visa Centre beckoned me forward.
“I have just come from Downing Street,” I said importantly, “with a letter for the Head of Section”.
She put out her hand and smiled.
I bowed and left her with my two-signature petition.
What on earth was I doing ?
This story begins with my plans for retirement in June, after 40 years in Medicine. People ask, “What will you do?” “Some sort of social activism,” I respond. “Won’t you be bored?”
Well this week, I got a foretaste of it. I read the accounts in Haaretz and the Washington Post, by Muslim Uyghur refugee women, describing “re-education” camps for over two million Uyghurs. Separation of families, starvation diets, enforced study of communist propaganda, declaration of “sins”, including renouncing their faith. Torture, murder, routine rape of young women, indeed of anyone under 35. Medical experiments. Forced sterilisation and abortion. Harvesting of organs. The clear genocidal aim is destruction of this religious ethnic group.
For Jews, these accounts have an uncomfortable familiarity, including the way accounts trickle out through individual escapees. The first reports from Nazi concentration camps were not believed, so the world didn’t do enough to help the Jews. Now, the world believes, yet still does too little. So, I obtained a ticket to “Protest for the Chinese Uyghur Muslims” at 10 Downing Street.
I got there 15 minutes early. Where were the protestors? The polite armed policeman outside Downing Street had seen none, but pointed across the road where protests are held. No one there, or in Trafalgar Square, or College Green, where two policemen suggested searching facebook or twitter for updates. Alas, I am not on twitter, and don’t use facebook! I returned to Downing Street. The policeman phoned colleagues. Yes, they knew that 200 people would demonstrate at 12.00 (my ticket said 13.00) across the road. It was then that I became aware of her. A pale-skinned girl, early 20s, leaning on the barrier behind us, clearly searching for something. She wore a pale green hijab and a surgical facemask, the latter for pollution, she later explained.
“Are you here for the protest?”
She was. We shared information. She checked facebook and the hashtag links #stopkillingmuslims. Several old posts about Gaza. No updates on the day’s protest. There was nothing in Trafalgar Square. She suggested we try the Chinese embassy. We set off, joking about handing in a petition if we couldn’t find the protest, but we felt a little awkward. For one thing, there was the age gap. For another, I was a man, she was a single woman, from a conservative muslim nation, torn by civil war. We both wore the external signs of our sometimes conflicting religions; me, kippah and tzitzit; she, her hijab and long dress!
She spoke a beautiful slightly American-accented English, with perfect intonation and an astonishing grasp of vernacular. She was delightful company, “adinah”.
Was I posh? she wanted to know. ‘It’s an educated middle-class North-West London accent,’ I told her. ‘Posh’ is Boris Johnson,’ I sniffed.
She was here for two weeks. She had told her friends about the protest, but not her family. Their advice was always “steer clear of politics.” I won’t reveal her country, name or course of study, in deference to her fear that her government might discover her participation. She joked she was paranoid, worried about CCTV, but I could feel her fear. She was in her final University year, studying a social science, wishing to be an academic doing real research “It could put you in conflict with your government,” I said. She nodded gravely. It was terrible back home. Everyone educated was leaving. There was cholera where she lives.
Life is difficult, but everyone helps everyone else out the best they can. We make do. Someone has to stay. Maybe when times are better we can build things up.
I explained why I had come, prompted by the Haaretz article. “Too few people helped the Jews,” I said, “that mustn’t happen to the Uyghurs.” Her eyes widened in surprise. Demonstrations are not enough, I said, we have to work out what will hurt or shame China. I suggested no longer accepting Chinese PhD or postdoctoral students to prevent China benefiting this way. She gasped. “That’s not fair on the students!”
“But,” I said, “this is attempted genocide, not an ordinary territorial dispute or war.”
Good grief, am I really going to go “BDS” on China?!!
We reached the Chinese Embassy. Except it wasn’t! The receptionist said the websites all give the wrong address and directed us to “12 Old Jewry Street”. Of all streets! On the tube, I asked if she would like to do her PhD in England. “That would be a dream,” she said, her voice sounding as if her eyes were filling with tears. Walking on, I gave her a short history of the City of London, pointing out St Paul’s, and singing the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’, as we passed the Church of Bow, with its bell. The Medieval Guilds and the street names delighted her: Milk Street, Ironmonger Lane, Bread Street. Once in “Old Jewry” we stood outside the site of London’s first synagogue. I explained why our only profession then was money lending, recounting how two centuries of riots and forced conversions culminated in our expulsion in 1290 for 350 years. Again, her eyes widened, and underneath the mask I saw her jaw drop.
We got to the embassy and it was the visa office! There were no protestors. We decided to hand in a two-signature petition. Maybe it would inform someone? She was too scared to come in and didn’t want me to sign her name. Suddenly she noticed the scarf in my rucksack as I reached for my notebook to tear off a lined page. “Oh, you support Spurs,” she cried, “They’re very good!”
Then we wrote-
“To whom it may concern,
Please free the Chinese Muslim Uyghurs, who are interred in large concentration camps, where they face torture, execution, medical experiments, forced sterilisation, rape- all to destroy them as a religious ethnic group. If China wishes to be admitted to the wider civilised community of nations, they must respect other humans or forfeit respect themselves.
-Sheldon Stone (Jewish) and a Muslim friend.
We folded the paper, and in capitals addressed it to “the head of visa section”.
I handed it in.
We never talked about Israel.
We never found the protest, but I like to think we both learnt something. So what did I learn?
First, that a civilised world means freedom to choose how we live. Jewish philosophers from Saadiah Gaon to Eliezer Berkowitz are clear that Hashem gives humans the freedom to choose. Created in God’s image (see this week’s parasha), we must then give others the same freedom. There are limits to freedom, of course. No theft, murder, or sexual impropriety for example (see next week’s parasha!)
Second, the desire to live in peace and in freedom, like football, is international!
Third, I saw how some people live in fear but try to “help everyone else out.”
Finally, I learnt that this “social activism” thing is not going to be boring.