Why aren’t Jews up in arms about Uyghur genocide?

Unlike the Darfur protests, taking on China requires courage. While some are speaking out, the lack of a groundswell on this issue shows how politics and fashion count more than principle.

A man holds up a sign protesting the genocide against Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government. Credit: AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
A man holds up a sign protesting the genocide against Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government. Credit: AndriiKoval/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the spring of 2006, thousands of Jews descended on Washington for a protest about an ongoing genocide going on in a western province of Sudan. Only days after the Jewish community had commemorated Yom Hashoah, the same “never again” rhetoric was heard on the Mall. There, along with other supporters of the “Save Darfur Coalition,” they heard from celebrities like Elie Wiesel, actor George Clooney and a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama about stopping the slaughter of civilians caught in a brutal civil war in that African nation. Similar events took place in a score of other cities around the country.

The protest was part of a campaign that lasted from 2004 to 2012, during a period when Darfur was subjected to a brutal extermination campaign largely carried out by the Muslim Arab government against Christians, animists and ethnic tribes opposed to the rule of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. As many as 400,000 people were killed in a genocide that was accompanied by mass rape and other horrific crimes.

At the forefront of the effort to respond to these atrocities were American Jews. While Al-Bashir would stay in power until an April 2019 military coup, American and international pressure generated by the protests did help end most of the violence in Sudan. Those who marched to save Darfur can at least say they took seriously the lessons of the Holocaust about not being silent in the face of genocide.

Fifteen years later, another genocide is taking place, and yet the same activist spirit that sent Jews into the streets to do something about Darfur seems to be missing when it comes to the fate of the Uyghurs of China.

The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who live in the Xinjiang region of Western China. Since 2014, China’s ruling Communist Party has been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against them. Acting under the authority of President Xi Jinping, crimes against humanity have been taking place there on an enormous scale, including mass imprisonment, systematic torture, rape, forced abortions and sterilizations. At least 1 million Uyghurs have been sent to the laogai—the Chinese gulag of prison camps. It is the largest systematic assault and imprisonment of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust.

Unlike the relatively isolated government of Sudan or the Rwandan and Serbian perpetrators of other genocides in the 1990s, standing up against China is not cost-free. With the world’s second-largest economy that may well overtake that of the United States later in this decade, nations confront this rising superpower at their peril.

In the United States, both Democrats and Republicans have tried to have it both ways when it comes to China. Though he often talked tough about China, former President Donald Trump also boasted of his friendship with Xi. Still, on its last day in office, the Trump administration formally recognized that what was going on in Xinjiang was genocide, an important step towards treating this catastrophe with the seriousness it deserves.

Since then, the Biden administration has seemed to take a step forward towards helping the Uyghurs but then took one back. The United States slapped sanctions on Chinese officials directly implicated in the genocide; however, when asked about the issue, President Joe Biden has given vague denunciations of Chinese human-rights violations. Then, at a CNN town hall event last month, he seemed to rationalize the genocide by speaking of the Chinese desire for “national unity,” and that others must recognize that each nation has its own culture and observes “different norms”—a signal that he recognized the right of Xi to do as he likes within the borders of China, even if that meant genocide. As with the Trump administration until that last day, there is no talk of a serious effort to help the Uyghurs or even to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing.

While we may understand, if not condone, the reluctance of world leaders to stand up to China, what’s the excuse of the organized Jewish world for its relative inaction in response to crimes on a far greater scale than those that took place in Darfur only a few years ago?

That is not to say that Jews have been entirely silent on the issue. British Jews have been quite outspoken. Chief of the United Kingdom Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has issued an important statement of conscience calling for action.

American Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have also issued statements about the Uyghurs. Jewish World Watch has organized “freedom seders” held in solidarity with the Uyghurs and other events. But the same activist spirit is for the most part conspicuous by its absence when it comes to more than press releases. While there is talk of more to be done in the future, the major Jewish groups have not been so quick to call for boycotts or action.

Why so cautious while genocide is happening?

The answer is obvious. Just as the United States must weigh how its economy has become inextricably linked to that of China’s growing power in determining how to respond to these atrocities, the organized Jewish world is also reluctant to stick its neck out on the issue.

After all, countless American institutions are heavily invested in a solid relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, and many major donors to Jewish groups would be hurt by a campaign that called for more than lip service to the Uyghurs.

There’s also a political dimension to this problem. Over the course of the last year, antagonism towards Beijing has become a source of partisan contention with Republicans speaking up to blame the Chinese Communist Party for its role in preventing any real effort at discovering the source of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, while Democrats have responded reflexively by branding the GOP stance as racist. Jewish liberals, who have become accustomed to opposing anything that Trump and the GOP, say aren’t eager to do anything that could be mistaken for hostility to a nation that has become the locus of their political opponents’ anger.

The same liberal Jewish activist energy that might have been used on behalf of the Uyghurs the way it was deployed on Darfur has instead been diverted to more fashionable causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Corporations that have spoken out about their opposition to Georgia’s voting law that has been falsely labeled as racist continue business as usual with a Chinese regime engaged in genocide. In the same way, many Jews are just as hypocritical when it comes to China.

The pandemic has also put the traditional mechanisms of Jewish activism out of action. Zoom webinars simply don’t have the same impact as demonstrations or in-person lobbying—measures that have, except for “mostly peaceful” BLM protests, been shelved over the course of the last year.

Whatever the reason for this diffidence on China, the fact remains that many Jews, who on Yom Hashoah go on and on about “never again” regarding genocide in the world, are doing nothing about a case of mass murder that is going on right now.

In doing so, Jews are not any more or less cowardly than the rest of a world that is too busy or too intimidated by China to do more than raise a token protest about what’s happening to the Uyghurs. But for those who spend so much time lecturing other Jews and everyone else about the universal lessons of the Holocaust, their indifference to what is arguably among the worst instances of genocide since 1945 is especially disturbing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

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