…..why saying the Shema may never be the same!
She left Israel for love. When very young. To marry the dashing Manchester accountant. She’s a warm-hearted woman. Our sons are friends. I’d never pegged her for an activist, so when I received her WhatsApp asking I sign a petition, I was surprised.
The petition asked the Mayor of Yulin, China, to stop the annual dogmeat festival. There were cute animals in cages, and nasty videos of dogs being flayed or cooked alive. I signed and circulated, of course. Classic Noachide(1) law stuff.
Let’s be clear! The vast majority of Chinese don’t eat dog. They also want this festival stopped. What caught my attention, however, was the number of signatories.
On the same platform, the petition to stop China’s prosecution of Uyghurs had 40,000!
The scale of discrepancy dumbfounded me. I asked my adult children why, in the era of Black Lives Matter, 3M Uyghurs in concentration, labour and prison camps facing starvation, torture murder, rape, forced labour, organ donation and sterilisation, should generate so much less attention than dogs or police brutality against Afro-americans?
“Cute little doggies, you know…
“No-one’s heard of Uyghurs, but everyone knows a black person…
“What’s happening to the Uyghurs seems incredible, hard to believe, especially in the twenty first century ….
“It’s too ‘political’…. hard to understand….
“And then with Black Lives Matter, we’ve all seen the video.”
Maybe the video’s the point. Perhaps Uyghurs need an iconic image, equivalent to the Holocaust images that encapsulate the whole, like the little boy with his hands up, or the piles of spectacles and hair, or which, like the video of George Floyd dying in front of us, arrests attention and makes us say “I have to do something.”
The Uyghur genocide proceeds under secrecy. Images are hard to come by. Then, the report came out, revealing the state programme of forced sterilisation targeting at least 80% of Uyghur women of childbearing age. That week images of human hair weaves and wigs, made Uyghur women internees’ hair, hit the headlines.
That weekend, BBC journalist Andrew Marr reduced the Chinese Ambassador to a stammer, asking him to explain drone surveillance footage (featured in my ToI Chanukah blog) of blindfolded, manacled and shackled Uyghurs being unloaded from trains and marched to camps.
There was outrage! Did we now have our iconic image? Men in visually striking white and purple, black blindfolds and chains. Our group, STOPUYGHURGENOCIDE, were excited. Could this be a tipping point?
The next week, moved by echoes of the Holocaust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ President wrote an open letter to the Chinese Ambassador. The ex-Chief Rabbi, Lord Johnathan Sacks, wrote a seven-tweet thread, invoking the cry of “Never Again,” as did the Holocaust Education Trust’s Chief executive, writing for MPs in PoliticsHome.
We set up a gofundme page to fund staff for a campaign to involve the public. In April, we had crowd-funded a legal challenge to the UK government’s use of HUAWEI to build the 5G network on the grounds that they employed Uyghur Slave Labour. It took weeks to reach the £5000 target! I sweated blood!
For the first time, I understood Rashi’s (2) comment that the phrase in the Shema prayer (3), “You shall love the Lord your G-d… with all your might” means “with your money!” One thing I love about Judaism is how it combines soaring spirituality with gritty folksy home-truths. Ask any shul (4) chairperson and they’ll tell you, ‘Everyone’s full of support, until you ask them to dip their hand in their pocket!’
However, this time, with all the publicity, it was surely going to be different! Well it’s better! Money is coming in faster. Although this weekend we successfully raised the profile again, persuading 75 faith leaders, including 20 Rabbis, to make a joint call for action by the international community to stop the Uyghur Genocide, the hoped-for flood of donations has not quite followed. But I’m not complaining. There is a steady trickle. I appreciate every penny, especially as many have come from students. Our time will come.
Are we still searching for our icon? I’m not sure. We still have to achieve critical public engagement, especially in applying economic pressure to China through boycotting products of Uyghur Slave Labour, but politicians are now supporting sanctions against responsible officials in state and on-state entities, a declaration of genocide, and proscription of complicit companies.
So, what can you do? Firstly, you can donate. We can’t run a large public campaign on no funds and no staff!
Secondly, Rene Cassin, the UN accredited “Jewish Voice for Human Rights”, gives a smorgasbord of action to take.
Thirdly, BOYCOTT CHINESE COTTON, as nearly all of it is produced by Uyghur Slave Labour.
Finally, when you read the Shema, think of us!
1. The Noachide Laws are 7 laws that all of humanity is meant to obey, one of which is not being cruel to animals (based on Genesis 9;4-6 and Talmud Babli, Sanhedrin 56b)
2. Rashi is a 11th Century French commentator on the entire Old Testament and the Talmud. Here he comments on Deut 6:5
4. The Shema is a key prayer text (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15;37-41) recited twice a day.
4. Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue