We ought to be outraged at what evokes pieces of our memory of genocide and persecution at the hands of the Nazis.
Growing up as a child in the Orthodox Jewish community, the shadow of the Holocaust weighed heavily upon my shoulders. I was told of the horrors my great-grandparents had endured, of the worlds destroyed and the lives lost. I heard stories about the 1.5 million children, who were no older than I was when their lives were tragically cut short. Above all, I was painfully reminded that I was part of the last generation who will ever have met survivors. A burden is laid upon us to remember; to never forget.
Our stories, then, cannot merely be stories. They must become memories, seared deep into a new generation’s collective consciousness so that we can say with confidence: never again. With our shuls, schools, and community centers, we went to Poland. We went to the cemeteries. We went to the ghettos. We went to the cattle cars. We went to the gas chambers. We went to the crematoria. “Never again” was imprinted deep in our Jewish memory.
It then comes to us as a shock that, in those moments when we wish to do good on our education, to speak out and say those words “never again,” our communities react in horror. We are told, “How dare you compare it to the Holocaust” or “How dare you belittle our suffering”. To make any comparison of the suffering of the Uyghur population to what the Jewish people experienced in the Holocaust is forbidden. “Never again” means never again to the Jewish people; we don’t speak out for the Uyghurs – because we are not Uyghurs.
This attitude is a betrayal of our education and an obstruction of our attempts to remember. Jewish suffering has not been monolithic. Our slavery in Egypt was not the same as our persecution by Haman in Persia. The massacres along the Rhineland were not the same as the pogroms in Kishnev. The Spanish Inquisition was not the same as the Holocaust. Yet, we have the capacity to recognize that Jew-hatred is Jew-hatred; its form or degree ought not to distract us from its essence.
There are 1,000,000 Uyghurs detained in camps of some sort in Xinjiang, China. They are a Muslim minority, who have been stripped of their basic freedoms in the name of “re-education” and political indoctrination. Within the camps, their beards are forcibly shaven, their veils taken away. Birth control is forced upon their women, and they are tortured and raped. To those who are lucky enough to not be inside camps, their moves are constantly surveilled by the Chinese government. They dare not mention their God or name their children as they please, for fear of persecution. Recent horrific footage has shown Uyghurs blindfolded on their knees, waiting to be forced into train cars. We ought to be outraged at what evokes pieces of our memory of genocide and persecution at the hands of the Nazis.
This is not a partisan issue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s human rights violation the “stain of the century”, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted that “Congress on a bipartisan basis has long spoken with one voice in defense of those persecuted by Beijing”. The decision to stand up and call out this gross violation of basic human rights should not be a difficult one. Yet I largely hear silence from my own Jewish community.
I believe that for some, “never forget” has morphed to mean “never forget Jewish suffering”. In this moment, if the Orthodox Jewish community remain silent, relief and rescue may come to the Uyghurs from elsewhere, but the moral stature of our community will perish. We cannot allow a victimhood complex to foster in which we preserve a monopoly on state-sponsored oppression and genocide.
Martin Niemöller’s oft cited line, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-because I was not a Jew,” comes to mind in articulating the hypocritical expectations we have internalized. If these words are more than just a nice line in a nice poem, if we are to believe that it was a travesty of immeasurable proportions that the world abandoned us as we were being slaughtered, then how can we not extend unto others what we sought for ourselves?
Detailed comparisons of genocide or imprisonment are pointless. No two events of suffering will ever be the same. Is this the same as the Holocaust? No. Is it as bad? No. Does it matter? No. If Holocaust education was about learning to identify an exact replica of the Third Reich, Jewish day schools could lower tuition and save us the trouble of building a lived sense of memory.
When young Jews feel the instinct to identify in the suffering of the Uyghurs the pain of their own great-grandparents, it is a testament to the quality of their education. Let us not handicap productive anger and pain with whining about holocaust comparisons, thereby embracing the inertia of apathy. Jewish memory is not written in dead letters on the history books of the past. It is lived in the present hearts and minds of a new generation of young men and women.
I issue a challenge. To young Jews, “who knows, perhaps it is for this moment that you have come to the royal position?” (Esther 4:14.) Speak out. Call upon your community leaders to do the same. Reach out to your local representatives. Through awareness and renewed consciousness, perhaps change is possible. Our memory is speaking out. Please let it be heard.