On Sept. 21, the second night of Sukkot, an intimate, little-known gathering took place in the Hillel’s Sukkah hidden between the Interfaith chapel and the Genesee River. “Sukkot” is a Jewish celebration that commemorates the time where God sheltered the recently liberated Hebrew nation as they wandered the desert between Egypt and Israel. Since then, Jews have celebrated the holiday by honoring the commandment to spend as much time as possible in a temporary dwelling known as the “Sukkah” for seven days and seven nights. Conversations among Jewish people celebrating Sukkot usually reflect on the movement in Egypt from slavery to liberation, and the miracles and strifes of desert wandering, to casting our hopes towards reaching the Holy Land. Biblical remembrances are often used as an analog to the memories of oppression and liberation throughout Jewish history. On Sept. 21, the University’s Jewish community came together under Hillel’s Sukkah to discuss the oppression that Uyghur Muslims in China face today.
Head of UR’s Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom (JMUF), junior Kinneret Katz, led the discussion. JMUF is a national movement where Jews connect their long history of enduring genocide to the oppression faced by the Uyghurs.
After providing some background about the holiday, Katz shared some history about Uyghurs. According to Katz, Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, but they prefer to call that area East Turkestan. They are deeply connected to the land, believing that “they have been in Turkistan for 9,000 years.” When Islam came to the Uyghurs around the 10th century, it persisted as a major part of their culture.
During the era of the Silk Road, Uyghurs were known for being welcoming to travelers. According to Katz, East Turkestan was known “as a point of oasis” to many travelers. Katz stated that a big component of Uyghur culture is “taking in the stranger.” “Jews were certainly among the many people hosted by the Uyghurs,” Katz said.
Uyghur persecution in China dates back to 2014. Katz stated that the policies enacted by the Chinese government aim to destroy Uyghur identity. Since 2014, between one and two million Uyghurs have been detained in internment facilities. Katz claims that disturbing forms of “physical and psychological torture” occur in these camps, including “electrocutions, sexual assault, medical experimentation, and attempts to destroy the detainees cultural identity.” References to Uyghur culture and history are strictly forbidden, and Uyghurs are forced to learn Mandarin and use only Chinese names.
The discussion the moved to the meaning of genocide. According to Katz, a big component of genocide is the destruction of the second generation. Katz explained that the Uyghur birth rates were “quickly moving towards zero.” There are many intersecting explanations for this — forced sterilization and abortions, the coercion of young Uyghur women into marriage with Han Chinese men and the rapid removal of young Uyghur men all come together to effectively tear the Uyghur family unit apart. Uyghur children whose families have been detained, Katz explained, are categorized as “orphans” and moved to Chinese childcare centers where they are forced to forget their family and heritage.
In a chilling statement, Katz asserted that if Uyghur activists are speaking out, it’s because they have no family left. There is a sizable population of Uyghur immigrants in America, most stay silent out of fear for the safety of their family back in East Turkestan.
The conversation then shifted to activism. “The High Holidays are about different groups of people coming together for a common purpose,” Katz said. She then set up a paradigm based on different responses to activism put in conversation with language from the Torah and Rabbinical scripture. In between these two voices, she opened the conversation to students attending the event.
The first theoretical response activists may hear is one of support. Katz used a quote from the Torah to support this notion: “justice, justice shall you pursue,” and asked the group how one pursues justice.
After a short discussion on representation and other methods of support, a second possible response to activism was explored: indifference. Katz asked the group how to respond to someone who says, “Why should I care?”
One of the answers from the group was that “You could be next.”The group discussed the importance of not only providing the facts of the Uyghur genocide, but providing the necessary emotional connection to combat indifference.
Next, the conversation expanded to finding similarities between the Jewish Holocaust and the Uyghur genocide. “The term ‘genocide’ evokes images of the Holocaust for a lot of people, especially Jews,” Katz explained.
One readily agreed upon point of similarity was the detainment camps in East Turkestan, which resemble the Nazi concentration camps in terms of its density of people, its use of forced labor, and its targeting of one ethnic group.
One important difference between the Jewish Holocaust and the Uyghur genocide is that “while the Holocaust was a bodily eradication, the Uygher genocide is a cultural one,” one student said.
Another difference mentioned was the location of the genocide. Nazism crossed national borders, building concentration camps in other European countries, whereas the Uyghur genocide is mostly within China. This centralization makes it easy for foreign policymakers to ignore the genocide.
While German citizens were part of the Nazi party, and people knew about what was happening mostly, Chinese citizens don’t know how bad the situation is, Katz said. Since it’s not reported by Chinese media sources, all the information that they see about it is from the west, which is easy to “take with a grain of salt” due to the hostilities between the west and China.
Later on in the discussion, Katz also strongly urged students to remember that supporting Uyghurs shouldn’t encourage hate or prejudice towards the Chinese people, saying, “Our problem is with the Chinese government, not the people.” Katz made sure to emphasize that anti-Asian violence would not be tolerated in the Uyghur freedom movement on campus.
Several ideas about what kinds of activism could be done were discussed among the group. Students talked about calling Congress representatives, educating themselves and others on the issue, and boycotting certain companies.
Among Jewish people, the phrase “never again” is used to express the conviction to prevent a tragedy like the Holocaust from happening again. Those at the event suggested that the Uyghur genocide may be the tragedy of our century that that Holocaust suvivors sought to prevent from repeating.
A new statement is circulating in Jewish activism circles now in regards to this issue:
“Never again is now.”
Editor’s Note: At the time of publication on October 2, 2021, this article’s title was “JMUF advocates for Uyghurs at Hillel’s Sukkot,” which should have been “JMUF advocates for Uyghurs at Hillel’s Sukkah.”