Karen Pollock, Chair of the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK has called on Jews, because of their experience of the Holocaust, to stand up for the religious and human rights of Uyghur Muslims and to protest against their persecution.
Similar calls have been made by, for example, the Illinois Holocaust Museum. The US Secretary of State in March of this year said that China is committing “genocide and crimes against humanity”, and the BBC reports that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been interning Uyghurs in camps from which there have been eyewitness reports of physical, mental and sexual torture as well as of mass rape. The BBC also reports that there has been a program of forcible mass sterilization of women and forced separation of children from their families.
The US, UK, Canada and EU imposed parallel sanctions on CCP officials involved in the persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang in March, which resulted in tit for tat Chinese sanctions, including the sanctioning of a UK academic, Jo Smith Finley, at the University of Newcastle, for her research on the experiences of the Uyghurs. Yet across academia, as across the left in general, there is relatively little concern shown about this oppression. For example, in the UK, the University and College Union has made no statements about their persecution by the CCP. Contrast this with their regular trenchant criticisms of Israel, as well as of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. By drawing this comparison I don’t intend to engage in “whataboutery” but rather to consider what drives this difference in perspective, and what it means for Jewish staff and students in academia and more widely.
So why does nobody care about the persecution of Muslims in China? Part of the reason can perhaps be found in the ways in which academia in both the US and the UK has become more reliant on Chinese funding. The number of Chinese students, who bring valuable tuition fee income in both territories, has soared over this period. So China accounts for one-third of the 1.1 million foreign students at US institutions, according to data from 2018-19 compiled by the Institute of International Education. As well, Chinese funding for research and other initiatives has also grown considerably, with Bloomberg reporting that around a billion dollars in such funding has been received by US universities since 2013, with proportionally even higher levels going to UK institutions. So is it simply that academics, as well as academic institutions, know what side their bread is buttered on, and are scared of the possible downsides of overt criticism of China? In contrast, rabid criticism of Israel has no such dangers. Is there also perhaps confusion based on identitarian politics? Recognizing the undoubted legacy of western colonial influence on China, and the status of Chinese people as non-white, is there a confusion of how to approach criticizing people who are, in their worldview, themselves oppressed (although of course, the issue is about the actions of the CCP, not the Chinese people)? There is no such confusion when it comes to Jews or Israel, as in their minds, Jews are clearly white and rich and thus on the side of the oppressor not the oppressed. It is this type of confusion that also, sadly, seriously undermines the work that universities try to do about equality and inclusion — arguing simultaneously to decolonize the curriculum but not caring too deeply where your funding comes from is not a sustainable position.
The connection here is not in terms of asking why academics don’t treat Israel fairly compared to other countries (although we should be asking that question), but more fundamentally in identifying one of the key reasons that we should speak out against antisemitism. If we fail to call out antisemitism and give academia a free pass in calling it out, we engage in moral confusion. The same confusion that Pastor Niemöller famously both engaged in and then more importantly repented of — “They came for the Jews and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew”. By analogy, the CCP has come for the Muslim, and precisely because I am a Jew, and I know what it means when people do not speak out, I need to stand up and be counted. Jewish academics and Jewish students, because we know what it means when antisemitism comes calling because we know what the real message is when anti-Semites reject the IHRA, need to stand up and speak out against the oppression of our Muslim brethren.
Our experience of antisemitism as a people, particularly at this time as we commemorate the Shoah, mandates this of us.