Jewish leaders use Holocaust Day to decry persecution of Uighurs

By Harriet Sherwood

Leading figures in the UK Jewish community are using Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January to focus on the persecution of Uighur Muslims, saying Jews have the “moral authority and moral duty” to speak out.

Rabbis, community leaders and Holocaust survivors have been at the forefront of efforts to put pressure on the UK government to take a stronger stance over China’s brutal treatment of the Uighurs.

In a recent letter to the prime minister, Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “As a community, we are always extremely hesitant to consider comparisons with the Holocaust.”

However, there were similarities between what is reported to be happening in China and what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, she said. Urging Boris Johnson to take action, she said violations of the Uighurs’ human rights were “shaping up to be the most serious outrage of our time”.

On Monday, René Cassin, a Jewish human rights organisation, will co-host an interfaith event for Holocaust Memorial Day to highlight the detention of more than a million Uighurs and people from other minorities in camps in Xinjiang in north-west China. A video to accompany the event features a number of senior rabbis alongside Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK.

Mia Hasenson-Gross, executive director of René Cassin, said using Holocaust Memorial Day to focus on another group of persecuted people was “significant” for Jews. She told the Observer: “We have been there, we have experienced this. The difference now is that there is still time to act. Jews have the moral authority and a moral duty to speak out now. Never again should civil society, businesses and decision-makers be silent as in the 1930s.”

Jonathan Wittenberg, the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism, who is speaking at the event, said: “We have learned on the body of our own people what persecution means. It is morally indefensible to be silent when crimes are perpetrated against another people, simply because of who they are.” The UK Jewish community was “very strongly behind” the calls for action to protect the Uighurs, said Wittenberg, some of whose relatives were killed in Auschwitz.

Last week, an attempt to require the government to reconsider any trade deal with a country found by the high court to be committing genocide was narrowly lost in parliament. The measure, backed by religious groups and a powerful cross-party alliance of MPs, was primarily directed at protecting the Uighurs.

Ahead of the parliamentary debate, Jewish News published a rare special midweek front page, saying “few issues could… be more urgent than the human rights atrocities currently taking place against Uighur Muslims under the world’s nose”.

Justin Cohen, the paper’s news editor, told the Observer: “Two key aims of Holocaust education today are encouraging young people to speak out against all forms of discrimination at the first signs, and sounding a warning that the Nazi persecution of the Jews didn’t start with the gas chambers.

“This is why survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides can play such a key role in speaking out in support of the Uighurs, and why their children and grandchildren feel such a strong impetus to do so.”

Last week, the outgoing US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his successor in the new Biden administration, Anthony Blinken, stated that China was committing ongoing genocide against the Uighurs.

Uighurs and other Muslims are reported to face starvation, torture, murder, sexual violence, slave labour and forced organ extraction in what China descibes as “re-education” camps. Former detainees have claimed women are forcibly sterilised.

China insists that Uighur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting civil unrest and sabotage.