‘If Jews Don’t Stand up Around The World, They’re Essentially Complicit’: Uyghur Expert

Justin Rudelson is an expert on Uyghur affairs who currently serves as a learning support specialist at Akiba Yavneh Academy of Dallas, an Orthodox Jewish pre-K through high school in Dallas, Texas. The author of “The Uighurs in the Future of Central Asia” and “Oasis Identities,” Rudelson spent time conducting fieldwork in anthropology with the Uyghurs in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in 1984, as well as bridging relations between China and Israel through desert development in the region. As a human rights activist and educator, he is an advisor to and board member of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) advocacy group.

Rudelson recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about his work with UHRP on a campaign to bring awareness to what the U.S. recently labeled policies of genocide targeting Uyghurs in the XUAR, including extralegal incarceration, forced sterilization and abortions, torture, rape, forced labor, discrimination, and cultural eradication. Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have been held in a vast network of internment camps in the region since 2017. Rudelson also discussed how the Jewish tradition of Passover, which will be observed around the world on Saturday, is a time for Jews—who endured their own genocide at the hand of Nazi Germany—to reflect on and express solidarity with the Uyghur people.

RFA: You’ve been working on a a campaign recently. Can you describe what it’s about?

Rudelson: Well, this is a campaign to try to bring awareness and empathy for people and the genocide that they’re facing in China to the Jewish people of the world … Of course, we’re all too aware of what’s going on. It reminds us of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. And we’re saying that if Jews don’t stand up around the world, that they’re essentially complicit in this situation … We have a Passover Seder, which is essentially a very large holiday, one of our most sacred holidays, where we recreate during a meal with our families the exodus from Egypt led by Moses, and we have to experience what it’s like to be slaves and to be in slavery.

And then we experience the joy of what it’s like to go to freedom. And we eat ceremonial foods that remind us of what happened. We read the story. And on this Seder, we’re not only reading the story of the Jews but we’re also reading about the Uyghur genocide to remind people that in our faith we cannot be free unless all people are free, and so we’re praying for the Uyghurs to be free and we’re doing several ceremonial things—symbolic things—to invite Uyghurs into our Seders and remember them during this terrible time in their history.

We have created a Haggadah, which essentially means “the telling,” and that’s a booklet that essentially helps guide us through the Seder performance. And this year we’re including in all our prayers, prayers for Uyghur liberation and freedom.

RFA: So, what are the similarities between the Uyghurs and the Jews, do you think?

Rudelson: We are both really ancient peoples who have ancient traditions. And we’ve also been through periods where the pharaoh and then the Nazis try to destroy our religion. Very similarly, there was oppression of women and rape and, of course, mass murder and genocide.

The elder people, their beards were shaved, they were forbidden to read their religious books. And it’s very similar to what’s going on. Of course, we were forced labor, we were slaves in Egypt, and part of this idea of being slaves in Egypt is that we tell our children that we always have to reach out to foreigners and people who are oppressed and having difficult conditions every year, specifically because we were strangers in a strange land in Egypt. And so, the difference is that for Jews we fled out of Egypt. For Uyghurs, they’re in their own homeland and they’ve essentially been colonized by China. China claims that this is their land. So that’s very different. So, Uyghurs are not fleeing out of Xinjiang. They want to stay in Xinjiang.

Teaching ‘secrets of survival’

RFA: In the Haggadah, you say there are certain prayers, certain important topics, that you have highlighted. Can you read something for our audience to have an understanding of what you are planning to do?

Rudelson: Well, a couple of symbolic things first—because of Uyghur forced labor in cotton, on the Seder table, we have symbolic foods and we’re putting cotton balls around to commemorate Uyghur forced labor. We’re also setting an empty chair at our dinner table for a Uyghur guest who can’t join us because of anti-Uyghur oppression and genocide.

But one of the things that we do is we talk about the fact of “never again” that Jews, the Holocaust, genocide, should never happen again. So, one of the very famous Jewish poets wrote a beautiful account that I’d like to read about “never again.”

“First they told the Uyghur men that they could not wear beards and then they put the Uyghurs in slave labor. And I did not speak out because I wasn’t sure what the Uyghurs were. And then they took the Uyghur women to camps and abused them, and I did not speak out because they seemed so far away. And then the Uyghurs began to disappear, and I awoke, and I realized I had been unfaithful to the words ‘never again.’”

I can tell you that this campaign has increased to measures beyond anything we expected. Some of the experts were saying we should try to do this in five synagogues. Now we’re reaching perhaps a million to two million people.

We’re really hoping to bring together a coalition of Jews and Muslims and Christians and people of all faiths into understanding how important it is to stand up for the Uyghur people and to pressure China to change their policies of genocide in the country because we know this is just taking too long for the world to stand up and we as Jews can’t wait anymore. We have to be very active and that’s why we’re having so many Jewish people supporting what we’re doing now.

It’s amazing how many people are coming together in this and working with Uyghur exiles throughout the world to put this together. We will have Uyghurs at our Seders and essentially teach Uyghurs. We consider the Seder and the Haggadah to be one of our secrets for survival in exile. And we hope that the Uyghur people will not have to go in exile in order to survive, but we want them to basically survive by learning their own history and perhaps also learning our history and how we survived and what they can do to ensure their survival as a people and a culture.

Reported by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service.

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