Our Holocaust history compels us to take up the cause of China’s repressed Muslim minority.
We’re all busy. We’re in the middle of fighting a pandemic. We’re battling to keep economies running. These are hard times. And that’s exactly why we, as Jews, are obliged to raise our voices.
Because when it was us on the line, too few people did. I’m a Holocaust educator and students constantly ask me: “Was the world really too busy focusing on the war to worry about the fate of the Jews?”
I reply that to an extent, this is true. “The world is a complex place and humanitarian and moral concerns often are eclipsed by wars, pandemics and the like,” I say. “Both then and now.”
“Is that why we are ignoring the plight of the Uighurs in China…?” comes the response.
You know that Holocaust education is working when your students ask you hard and uncomfortable questions that make you squirm. And in honour of those students, who push me to think, I’m writing this.
I am cautious of the danger of comparing anything to the Holocaust. It often comes to be played as a trump card which limits discussion, or as part of attempts to diminish in some way the Nazi crimes. It is with this sensitivity that I and many others who educate about the Holocaust are nervous as we try to find the words to talk about what’s going on in China.
In a BBC interview the Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom was asked how he could explain pictures of Uighur Muslims shaved and blindfolded being herded onto trains in Xinjiang, North Eastern China. Liu Xiaoming said, “I cannot see…I do not know where you get this videotape”. He was challenged with the testimony of a Uighur woman who had been sterilised against her will and with the statistic that between 2015-2018 population growth in Uighur areas had fallen by 84%. His reply: “there is no so-called restriction of the population, no so-called forced abortion”.
By their own accounts the Chinese government has more than one million Uighurs in ‘re-education camps’ where staff are told to ‘prevent escapes’. Their preemptive policing means that Uighurs can be imprisoned in these camps on the basis of suspicious behaviour, which includes acts such as growing a beard, visiting foreign websites or applying for a passport. Inside these camps there are extensive reports of torture. A BBC investigation also found that China, in an attempt to re-educate the Uighurs was separating children from their families, faith and language.
Seventy four years ago a Jewish refugee from Poland, a former law student at the University of Lvov campaigned tirelessly that the Nuremberg Trials should be convicting the twenty four defendants of a crime he had coined, the crime of genocide. His approach demanded that the world recognise that the sovereign state has limits on the way they can treat their citizens and that the attempt to destroy a race, nation or ethnicity is a crime even more heinous than the sum total of its parts.
That Jewish refugee, Raphael Lemkin argued his case against an establishment which did not want to accept his approach focused on crimes against entire groups. Six months passed with his term being uttered only once in court. Lemkin didn’t give up, he lobbied and wrote letters, attended meetings and made phone calls in order to include this crime of crimes on the indictment. He eventually succeeded and genocide was recognised as one of the crimes those convicted were guilty of.
Why did he fight so hard for this crime to be recognised? Not simply to establish his legacy nor to avenge the deaths of close to fifty of his family members left behind in Europe, victim to the Nazi war machine. Rather, establishing the principle, giving the crime a name, being able to identify it was surely the only way to prevent it reappearing.
Unfortunately the existence of the concept in law has not been enough. Preventing births and forcibly separating children from their families are both criteria laid out by the UN Convention on the definition of genocide. Evidence of these crimes in China have gone largely underreported and represents a stain on society there and beyond. In an interconnected world not only are we trading with the perpetrators of these crimes but we are wearing the garments of opression. A recent study by a coalition of more than 180 human rights groups indicates that one fifth of the world’s cotton products are connected to the Uighur forced labour supply chain.
The goal of teaching about the Holocaust is not to impart information. The measure of success for a student who has studied the Holocaust should not be whether they can list key dates or recall names of perpetrators. Rather teaching about the Holocaust is teaching history which touches at the moral fabric of society, it asks some of the biggest questions of humanity and challenges the next generation to do better in finding answers than their predecessors.
Journeys to Poland with JRoots, online classes and tours of Yad Vashem have all been characterised by a deep sense of responsibility to the world and a sense of sharpening our moral compasses. Our education is driven by a sense of what it means to be part of a nation born out of oppression and slavery, a nation implored to care for the stranger; for we too were strangers in the land of Egypt.
When we grapple with the Holocaust we encounter some extremely challenging questions about the responses of individuals and states who were aware to a greater or lesser extent of the crimes being committed. The answers we offer to how people remained silent may come to explain but by no means justify. ‘There were wider political concerns’, ‘people just didn’t know’ and ‘you can’t trust the information you have’ all echo in a terrifying way around the virtual classrooms and lecture halls of 2020.
At a time of global crisis, we all find ourselves prioritising local concerns over international ones. Today each and every one of us feel at the centre of global events and it is sometimes hard to find the bandwidth to add another cause or crisis to our lives. Lemkin relentlessly fought his legal battle and showed how even an orphaned Jewish refugee could fight and succeed in catching the ear of the world. He gave us, three generations later, the tools to identify and speak out against the crime of crimes.
I believe that if Lemkin were here now he would be asking us all, living in the shadow of a developing genocide, ‘what are you going to do in order to be heard?’
In answering his challenge it may not be a case of the cost of acting, but the ultimate price of failing to act.