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On never forgetting the Uyghurs

This week, the same Chinese leadership that is persecuting the Uyghurs is also hosting the Winter Olympic Games, providing an ideal opportunity for worldwide condemnation of the genocide.

Uyghur Muslims, December 2018. Credit: Sean Chiu via Wikimedia Commons.
Uyghur Muslims, December 2018. Credit: Sean Chiu via Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

As we commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, the stirring and defiant exclamation “Never Again” echoed throughout the world. Most of us learned that pledge at an early age and have repeated it faithfully ever since. But I must admit that I never understood that our vow was so specific.

I always assumed our commitment was to lead the fight against genocide wherever it happened. It never occurred to me that we were only talking about Jews and Nazis and swastikas. But as we watch from half a world away as the Chinese government commits mass atrocities against its own beleaguered Uyghur population, we must ask why that promise is not a much greater priority for Jews in this country and elsewhere, and for all those who have made similar commitments to beat back the same type of horrors inflicted on our parents and grandparents, our friends and siblings, before and during World War II.

There are praiseworthy exceptions to our community’s overall diffidence, most notably the commendable work of Jewish World Watch to raise awareness and mobilize support for Uyghur Muslims in China. Late last year, the group recruited more than 200 Jewish organizations, synagogues, rabbis and community leaders to sign a letter urging President Biden to take more forceful action against the Chinese government’s maltreatment of the Uyghurs within their borders. 

But efforts like these, while laudable, are a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of attention necessary to drive a substantive change in either government action or broader public outrage against the incarceration, indoctrination and physical violence that the Chinese government visits upon more than 12 million of their country’s Uyghur residents. And it is a mystery that the global Jewish population, whose own experience with such unforgivable oppression is less than a century old, has not been louder and angrier in demanding that the genocide be stopped. 

Along with the obvious moral necessity of speaking out for those who can not speak for themselves, there are also very practical reasons for American Jews to become more aggressive on this issue. Because allying themselves with China on the world stage has been extremely lucrative, most of the world’s Arab nations have stayed silent in the face of the repression faced by the Uyghurs. But Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere have been organizing and speaking loudly about the issue. 

Just as the implementation and possible expansion of the Abraham Accords is remaking the Middle East, allying ourselves with the Muslim community in support of the Uyghurs can lay the groundwork for improved relationships between the two peoples at the grassroots level. (Given that there are approximately 2 billion Muslims in the world and a little less than 15 million Jews, the practical benefit should be self-evident.)

This week, the same Chinese leadership that is persecuting the Uyghurs is also hosting the Winter Olympic Games, which provides an ideal opportunity for worldwide condemnation of the genocide. Just as Adolph Hitler used the Berlin Games in 1936 to whitewash the misery he was inflicting upon the Jewish population of his country, Xi Jinping will similarly use his own television platform to mislead a worldwide audience about the abuses taking place in the northwest region of his country. 

It’s important to draw distinctions between the systematic murder of six million Jews and the persecution of the Uyghur people. What’s taking place in China is not a Holocaust—at least not yet. But it is a slow-moving genocide. As Stephen D. Smith, the widely respected executive director chair of USC’s Shoah Foundation, has said: 

“Genocide does not always involve mass murder. The egregious evisceration by birthrate reduction, imprisonment and re-education, as well cultural and religious obliteration, achieves much of the same thing. They are acts that will destroy the Uyghurs over time. That is genocide. By definition.”

Decades ago, the world ignored a developing genocide in Europe until it was too late. If “Never Again” is to mean anything, we must confront another extermination-in-the-making while we still can.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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