One of my life’s central texts is my great-grandmother’s account of her life in Nazi-controlled Berlin. My family reads it every Passover, and each time I return to it, her descriptions of what her family endured grow more painful.
In a sequence permanently stamped into my consciousness, a policeman arrests my great-grandmother’s brother while complaining that he “can’t stand” the crying of the “innocent people” around him. My great-grandmother asks why, in that case, he’s still arresting her brother. In response, the policeman informs her that he “has to obey” his orders, and then shows her “a crowd of hundreds of young and old arrested people” — soon to include her brother — destined to be sent east.
“But you,” he tells her husband, “I did not see, and I have no orders … for your arrest.” Shortly after, what remains of her family finally departs for the only country in the world that would take them: not the United States, where I was born, but Uruguay.
Knowing I’m alive today only thanks to the flippant mercy of a policeman infused my day school discussions of “never again” with a furious personal urgency. As a child, I rarely doubted that, one day, I would have to speak out against genocide. I thought I was ready for this challenge. But the story of my refugee family did not prepare me for what it is like to be on the other side, now as a college student, as a spectator to genocide.
In high school, I was vaguely aware of the Uyghur Genocide. Once, I was in D.C. with friends and wanted to try Uyghur food. The only thing I knew of Uyghur culture was that it was being brutally suppressed by the Chinese government. I didn’t reveal it to my friends, but this was why I picked a Uyghur restaurant.
I wondered if our waiter had heard from his family in China recently; this thought made me realize that I was experiencing what a faintly concerned American gentile of the 1940s might have felt upon meeting Jews for the first time. I left the restaurant knowing I was one step closer to the Uyghur genocide, but still wondered what it had to do with me.
I continued to pay attention to the news out of Xinjiang, the Uyghur region of China, as I finished high school. I went to Poland on the March of the Living and returned changed. Genocide was on my mind often and, with increased reporting, before my eyes: the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang were being rounded up into camps and prisons, enslaved, forcibly sterilized, and systematically raped. They suffer mass disappearances, confinement of children in residential schools, and the destruction of sacred sites.
Chinese officials in charge of the Uyghur region openly plan to erase Uyghur identity, with officials called on to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” I knew, by doing nothing, I was not fulfilling my personal responsibility — or my Jewish responsibility. Was this not what my Jewish education had prepared me for?
Starting at the University of Texas in 2019, I pursued my linguistics major, focusing on endangered and marginalized languages. I studied Tuvan, a language related to Uyghur. While researching for a class, I found a documentary on policies of mass surveillance and incarceration in Xinjiang. My own inaction, even as a people were imprisoned by a totalitarian government, disappointed and frightened me.
But this past summer, a group of Jewish college students started the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom. I was elated at the thought of finally taking action, and got involved. The JMUF is now an international group mobilizing the Jewish community to stand against the Uyghur Genocide and build solidarity with Uyghurs in the diaspora.
Among other things, the JMUF lobbies lawmakers to ban the importation of goods made with slave labor and raises money for language schools and shelters for Uyghur children in the diaspora. JMUF students have organized public readings of Uyghur poetry in addition to preparing a Uyghur Freedom Haggadah.
In my time with JMUF, I have come to know and befriend Uyghurs and discover for myself the beauty and dignity of their culture. I have even begun learning the Uyghur language. I have been told directly by those with family and friends in the camps (which, by now, is most Uyghurs) that specifically Jewish solidarity gives them hope that they are not forgotten. While much of the world continues to ignore or even condone what is being done to the Uyghurs, many Jews are standing up for the Uyghur people.
It is terrible to realize that again, an ethno-religious minority is the target of a totalitarian government that seeks to destroy it. At the moment, the methods of choice are forced assimilation and sterilization; this alone should be enough to demand unceasing Jewish outrage. We know what comes next. The Chinese state has ruled out total physical annihilation — for now — in favor of ‘cleaner’ solutions to the “Uyghur Question.” We must not wait for it to abandon the pretense.
I am afraid because I am young, because I can see where the future is heading: backwards.
I came into JMUF barely knowing anything about the Uyghur Genocide. Now, knowing more but still not enough, I am afraid. I am seriously terrified at how easily the camps went up, and how little the average American cares about the slaves who pick the cotton they wear. I am afraid because I am young, because I can see where the future is heading: backwards. JMUF may be a group of idealistic college students, but idealism is not naiveté. Uyghur Freedom is a necessary end in itself, but is also one of the many monumental tests facing Jews today. It is not up to us alone to achieve it, but we will never be free to abandon it.
Avi Ackermann is a sophomore studying linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Get involved with the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom here.
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