I have never met a Uyghur person. As I write, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims are suffering intolerable conditions under mass surveillance and forced labour. It is undeniably the most large-scale crime taking place in the world. And yet, were it not for occasional stories popping up on my newsfeed, I would hardly notice, let alone be impacted.
Today, my other newsfeed prompted me to think once again about this issue. Today is the Aliyah of Rishon of Parashat Shemot, meaning that for those who study the weekly parasha by reading one section a day, they will be reading about the first recorded attempt in history of forced labour and mass persecution.
“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land’. So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built store cities for Pharaoh, namely Pithom and Raamses”. (Shemot 1:8-11)
Within a mere few sentences, we read how the Jewish people have gone from being a welcomed minority to a persecuted people – seemingly with no protest from the Egyptian people. The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains the logic: Had Pharaoh suggested killing Jews (as he later does) at this stage, the Egyptian people would have not allowed it to happen. Instead, Pharaoh’s plan is to implement genocide incrementally.
Learning this passage in light of the Holocaust, and in dark at the current plight of the Uyghurs, is chilling. I am so removed from the reality of what is happening in China, and my ability to directly impact what is happening is so minimal.
This is why I am drawn to the way the Torah starts the story: “And these are the names”. By listing the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt, we understand that behind the ‘othering’ of a nation and the ensuing persecution are people, faces and names.
And so I return back to the thought that I have never met a Uyghur person. If I knew just one person, I would be in a better position to empathise, and feel more drawn to act. And since that isn’t likely, the next best thing is to read testimonies of those lucky enough to escape.
This week’s Torah portion is a welcome reminder that even if it seems futile to believe that things can change in China, or that I could make that change happen, it should not stop us empathising, showing an interest and raising awareness. It may not be the most I can do, but it’s certainly the least.