If you’re anything like me, COVID-19 lockdowns have left you scrolling through an extremely politically active social media feed. Alongside posts calling for solidarity with Black Americans and reminders to continue social distancing, you may have also noticed that more and more people have also been discussing human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims in China.
I’ve personally noticed a large number of Jews take on this cause, and it’s not surprising why. Take this Facebook post by prominent British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which earned over 3,000 likes and over 2,000 shares on Facebook in late July. In the post, Rabbi Sacks compares the internment of Uyghur Muslims in western China to the extermination of Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. He exhorts the global Jewish community to speak out about the government’s horrific human rights abuses.
As more and more activists speak out about the internment of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, more campaigns are emerging to urge the U.S. government to cut economic ties with China to show solidarity with the Uyghur Muslim community. Let’s break down the situation of what’s going on in China, why Jews feel such a particular moral duty to speak out, and what we can do to help.
So… What’s going on?
For those unfamiliar, Uyghur Muslims (also spelled as Uighur) are an ethnic minority in Xinjiang: a region in Western China that came under Chinese control after being annexed in 1949. Uyghur Muslims primarily speak standard Xianjing or Standard Soviet, the latter language being a dialectical version of what is spoken in the bordering country of Kazakhstan.
Today, three million Uyghur Muslims have been forcibly separated from their families and placed into oppressive internment camps. The goal of these camps are to dispossess Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang of their culture and identity through the guise of education programs and labor initiatives.
In recent months, more information about these camps have been coming to light. A recent BBC video shows Uyghur adult men and women forced to memorize Chinese characters, wear uniforms, and learn dances that express allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. In these camps, Uyghurs are being denied access to Halal food, are forbidden from attending mosques, and they are even denied the right to speak their own language.
Today, adult Uyghur Muslims can be separated from their families and placed into internment camps for doing the most benign actions. A Uyghur can be sent to a concentration camp for praying, fasting, and even owning a compass. One woman interviewed by the BBC spent a year in the camp simply for having downloaded WhatsApp on her phone.
Even more alarming, these efforts to erase Uyghur Muslims’ presence from Xinjiang are working. In 1945, Uyghur Muslims composed 82% of the region’s population. However, in 2008, Xinjiang’s population was only 46.1% Uyghur. In addition, 5,000 mosques in East Turkestan have been destroyed by Chinese officials. According to NPR, the suppression of Uyghur Muslim culture in Western China meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
Why is it imperative for Jews to speak out against this?
After the horrors of the Holocaust, the adage of “Never Again” became entrenched into the values of Jews across the world. Today, we learn about the insidious rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany through educational books, films, and documentaries. Many of us attend organized trips to Eastern Europe as teenagers to confront the unimaginable loss our people suffered at the hands of this regime.
We understand from a young age that we must do everything in our power to prevent such baseless hatred from taking root in society again — whether it’s against us or anyone else.
So, when we see the basic warning signs of what happened to Jews only 75 years ago — warning signs such as the shaved heads, eerie, single-file lines, and evidence of forced labor — it is our duty as Jews to stand up and speak out for what is right. When we see a beauty tutorial video on TikTok quickly devolve into a passionate plea for solidarity with the Uyghur community, we understand that we cannot simply scroll past to the next challah-braiding tutorial. Of course, while creating a direct comparison of any contemporary conflict to the Holocaust is problematic and insensitive, the moral outrage we Jews ought to feel is simple: We must take a stand against these global injustices.
So what can I do about it?
1. Continue to educate yourself through articles, videos, and social media accounts.
During the peak of Black Lives Matter in June, a lot of activists gave the advice to diversify the accounts you follow on social media to include more Black and Indigenous perspectives. When it comes to demonstrating solidarity with the Uyghur Muslim community, I recommend doing the same. Since becoming aware about Uyghur internment, I started following pages like @jewsforUyghurs, which posts testimonials from interned Uyghurs and sports a comprehensive Linktree to articles about how to become involved. Other powerful accounts include @never.again.right.now, an organization created by the European Union of Jewish Students, and @uyghurprojectig, which uses a variety of digestible infographics to inform and educate about Uyghur internment in China.
Finally, if you are a college student, consider taking courses from your school’s East Asian Studies, world issues, or history departments that touch upon Uyghur internment or Uyghur life.
2. Write letters, emails, and make calls to embassies and elected representatives.
Educating yourself is only half the battle. Once you’re more informed, I recommend writing, calling, and e-mailing your representatives to exert more pressure on elected officials to take a stand with the Uyghur community. SaveUyghur.org includes a page urging Americans to call Congress to support the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act. This act would require corporations in the United States who source material from Xinjiang to provide clear evidence that their products are not made with Uyghur labor. The website includes a template of a script for calling Congress, providing even the least confrontational among us with the tools to take a stand.
Likewise, you can also write letters to the Members of Parliament or the Chinese Embassy of your home city. The letter can include various demands for the embassies to follow, such as an end to the camps, the allowing of more religious freedoms to be granted for Uyghur Muslims, and demands that family cohesion be respected. SaveUyghur.org includes a list of embassies and consulates across the United States with their respective locations and phone addresses. For those living in Canada, find information about how to locate your embassy here. For those living in the United Kingdom, check out contact details on this page.
3. Boycott or reduce spending on brands that are known for relying upon Uyghur Labor.
Brands that rely upon Uyghur labor are, unfortunately, all too pervasive in North American consumer culture. In a March 2020 report, the Australian Policy Institute published a detailed list of brands that rely upon Uyghur labor. Many popular clothing brands use cotton and yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region, such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, and H&M. In fact, according to the Guardian, a coalition of over 180 human rights groups estimates that nearly 20% of the world’s cotton has stemmed from labor abuses in this region.
Boycotting or reducing your spending from these companies is a fantastic way to pressure these companies into changing their sourcing habits as we push for larger, systemic change. Besides, chances are you might have some extra spending money now that you’re not purchasing that fancy new t-shirt. Consider redirecting some of those funds to the Save Uyghur Campaign here.
4. Continue speaking out and educating others about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and other parts of the world.
Jews are no stranger to persecution. We have known exile from our homeland, discrimination in employment and higher education, and genocide in its most vile and heartless form. When we read about a religious minority in East Asia currently being denied access to their places of worship, being confiscated of their passports, and adult women being sterilized, while we may not understand every detail, we know that it is our duty to speak out.
So please, keep posting, donating, and writing elected representatives for the liberation of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. It is our job as Jewish people — and, more broadly, as citizens of the world — to keep kicking, screaming, and shouting until these global issues are addressed and ameliorated.
Header image: photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Image by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images.