Since Oct. 7, the word “genocide” has become a catchphrase, a blood libel against Jews and a way to silence political opponents. This is of course a problem for Jews and Israelis, but the damage goes even further: Cheapening the word makes us forget that genocide is still a real and terrible thing. How, for instance, are we to describe the genuine genocide of Uyghurs going on in China?
The word genocide was coined in 1944 by the Jewish and Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, to describe what Nazi Germany was doing to both the Jewish and Polish peoples. Genocide, according to Lemkin, is “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” Given the scale of the atrocities of that time, genocide of course became the ultimate accusation; a regime committing genocide is the epitome of evil.
While the imperative to fight against genocide is self-evident according to universal human values, the Jewish tradition calls us to action by directly commanding us to counter such injustices.
First, we’re taught in the Torah, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). And from this the Talmud derives, “One who sees another drowning in a river, or being dragged away by a wild animal, or being attacked by bandits, is obligated to save him” (Sanhedrin 73a).
Our Jewish inheritance shows us that we cannot see injustice as being someone else’s problem. It is our duty as people to protect one another.
And, lest we think that our only responsibility is to our fellow Jews, we see that the great 18th-century rabbi Yaakov Emden wrote, “A Jew with political responsibility … has the obligation to rescue the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor by all means available, whether by direct action or through political effort, regardless of whether the oppressed is Jewish.”
The contradiction inherent to being a human is that, though all people are made in the image of God, all people are unique. In fact, it is precisely each person’s uniqueness that makes them so infinitely valuable. Maimonides wrote in his Mishneh Torah:
For this reason, Adam was created alone, to show that should anyone destroy a single life he shall be called to account as though he had destroyed a complete world; and should anyone preserve a single life, he is credited as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, all [humans] are fashioned after the pattern of the first [human], yet no two faces are exactly alike. Therefore, every [person] may well say: For my sake the world was created.
So too, ethnic and religious groups are valued not only for the individuals they contain, but for their uniqueness in relation to other peoples. The Jewish singer Theodore Bikel, when asked why he sang seemingly outdated songs in Yiddish and Hebrew, would say, “I see human culture as a beautiful garden, full of beautiful flowers — and my flower is a Jewish flower. It is not better or more beautiful than the other flowers, but it is mine: and if I don’t tend to it, it will wither, and die.”
God wants diverse societies. God doesn’t want any group of society wiped out. It’s not just that human life matters. The diversity of human life matters.
April 18 and 19, shortly before this coming Passover, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity is having the biggest-yet conference on the Uyghur genocide, at 92NY in New York City. With Pesach in mind, Jews should see another dimension added here by the Jewish tradition: China is acting like today’s Pharaoh, putting Uyghurs in reeducation camps and using them for slave labor. Together with the rest of the human-rights community, we will build the movement that is going to be in solidarity with the Uyghur activist community, advocate for politicians to take a stand against China’s actions and pressure corporations to give transparency on the sources of their labor — so that we can move toward an end of current-day oppression and slavery. Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the moment where we must tap into the powerfully felt desire of this new generation to stand up against genocide. Inspired by Elie Wiesel’s legacy, and in memory of all victims of the Holocaust, we must defend the Jewish people from being attacked for our attempts to prevent Hamas from ever again exercising its genocidal intent. But we must also harness this energy for righteousness toward standing up to a superpower whose influence can be felt in the threads of the clothes we wear in this largest state-driven bureaucratized genocide of another people since the Holocaust.
In recent months, we’ve been intensely focused on the wellbeing of Jewish community — and for good reason. And yet, if we are to remain true to who we are, if we are to truly keep the Jewish tradition alive, we must continue to live out our Jewish imperatives in the world.