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Uyghur activists: ‘We will never forget’ Jewish support in US, UK

“Our own Muslim brothers in America and in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia are not speaking out against the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs,” an activist told JNS.

Uyghur people in the streets of Kashgar in west Xinjiang, China, on Sept. 17, 2005. Photo by Matanya Tausig/Flash90.
Uyghur people in the streets of Kashgar in west Xinjiang, China, on Sept. 17, 2005. Photo by Matanya Tausig/Flash90.

When Chinese government officials burn Korans, demolish mosques, prevent the practice of Islam and carry out the “systematic genocide of Muslims in the Uyghur region regularly,” Islamic countries and ordinary Muslims do not speak out. That’s according to Omer Kanat, co-founder and executive committee chairman of the World Uyghur Congress.

“It’s truly shameful,” Kanat told JNS. “Are we Uyghurs any less Muslim than other Muslims in the world?”

As he sees it, Uyghurs are receiving support from outside their faith tradition as Islamic and Arab nations, and Middle Eastern companies that engage in lucrative trade with China’s Communist regime, remain mum for fear of offending Beijing.

“There are Jewish groups who have absolutely no connection to the Uyghurs but are very vocal about the genocide our people are facing at the hands of the Chinese government,” he said. “This is something we Uyghurs will never forget.”

‘We have experienced such horrors before’

In late March, California state legislators unanimously approved a bill condemning the Chinese Communist regime’s human-rights violations against the Uyghur people. Jesse Gabriel, a Jewish state assemblyman, drafted the bill, Resolution 25, and 78 colleagues co-sponsored it.

The legislation, which passed the assembly, is the first of its kind in any U.S. state legislature, according to the Los Angeles nonprofit Jewish World Watch, which was heavily involved in advocating for the new legislation.

“As Americans and as Jews, we have a moral obligation to speak out forcefully against genocide and crimes against humanity, wherever and whenever they occur,” Gabriel, a Democrat and chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, told JNS.

“As Elie Wiesel taught us after the Holocaust, ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor’ and ‘Silence encourages the tormentor,’” he added. “We cannot stand idly by, especially when so many lives are at risk and when others are hesitant to challenge a powerful regime.”

Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel in front of the California State Capitol Building. Credit: Jeff Walters/California State Assembly via Wikimedia Commons.

While the California legislation is symbolic, Jewish groups stateside and in Europe have been at the forefront of raising awareness about the plight of China’s persecuted Uyghur population in recent years.

“Unfortunately, the horror stories we’re hearing about the Uyghur people being taken in the night, having their heads shaved, being put on trains, interned in concentration camps and systematically disappeared are all too familiar to the Jewish community,” Serena Oberstein, executive director of Jewish World Watch, told JNS.

“What is happening to the Uyghurs is not the Holocaust, but make no mistake, we are witnessing China erect the same infrastructure that Germany developed leading up to the Holocaust,” she added.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, also sees parallels between the Holocaust and the persecution of the Uyghurs.

“We have experienced such horrors before. No one should ever have to experience such a dehumanizing hell again,” Cooper, who was recently named chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, told JNS. “The world’s tepid reaction (and) Muslim leaders helping Xi whitewash these crimes are a disgrace. We who carry the legacy of the Shoah must continue to speak out, and we will.”

‘Disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces’

Since 2017, an estimated 1 million to 1.8 million Uyghurs have suffered human-rights violations at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, including mass surveillance, detention, family separation, indoctrination, forced labor, sterilization and extrajudicial killings, according to Oberstein.

Last August, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report that stated that the “arbitrary and discriminatory” detention of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups “may constitute international crimes, in particular, crimes against humanity.”

The Chinese government has long denied repeated claims that it is holding Uyghur Muslims in detention or re-education camps. Last year, it rejected the OHCHR’s report as “disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces,” which “wantonly smears and slanders of China.”

Nury Turkel, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2022. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) into law on Dec. 23, 2011. The law requires companies that import goods from China’s Xinjiang region to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that no component was produced with Uyghur slave labor.

Nury Turkel, a Uyghur activist who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told JNS that the UFLPA was a positive first step in helping the plight of Uyghurs in China. Still, additional resources are needed to reduce Chinese persecution of Uyghurs, he said.

“The law passed by Congress is strong, but it will take time for it to have a real impact because there are inspection challenges to checking all of the goods coming into the U.S. from China,” Turkel said.

Chinese Communist regimes have persecuted Muslim Uyghurs for more than 70 years, according to Turkel, but since 2017, they have escalated the persecution, building massive detention centers that regime officials describe as re-education camps.

Uyghur men and women detained in the camps are imprisoned for praying, attending religious weddings or visiting mosques, according to Turkel, who added that between 2 million and 3 million Uyghurs are being held in more than 300 camps.

“The Chinese government has conveniently been using the excuse of arresting Uyghurs after 9/11 by claiming they are trying to fight radical Islamic terrorism,” he said. “But even if this were true, why have they collectively punished and imprisoned 2 to 3 million Uyghurs for this excuse instead of taking individual measures of counter-terrorism like the U.S. and European governments have over the years?”

Oberstein cited several other Jewish groups that are also supporting Uyghurs, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom and the Jewish Community Relations Council and American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) in Detroit. Overseas, the European Union of Jewish Students and René Cassin—a nonprofit named for the jurist who co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are also supporting Uyghurs.

The groups have been active in the broader international Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor.

Uyghurs in a market in the city of Kashgar, in the west of Xinjiang, China on Sept. 17, 2005. Photo by Matanya Tausig/Flash90.

Bill in California legislature to ‘send a clear message’

The Saudi, Emierati, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Qatari and Turkish embassies in Washington did not respond to queries from JNS. Nor did the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Oberstein told JNS she is unaware of any Muslim groups actively lobbying the California legislature on the recent bill condemning the Chinese persecution of Uyghurs.

When JNS reached the southern California office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leader of the group expressed gratitude to Jewish activists for advocating on behalf of Uyghurs.

“We at CAIR are appreciative to the Jewish groups who are supporting this bill and raising public awareness of the situation Muslim Uyghurs are facing in China,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s greater Los Angeles-area office, told JNS. “After the Holocaust, the Jewish community has always been outspoken and sensitive about human rights around the world.”

CAIR was unaware of the new Uyghur bill in the California legislature, but Ayloush told JNS that his organization is now willing to cooperate with Jewish World Watch and other Jewish groups to push for the bill’s final passage into law.

“Some may think this law is merely symbolic, but it is not,” said Ayloush. “It will send a clear message that California and other states will put restrictions on China and no longer tolerate its human-right abuses.”

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