What Does “Never Again” Mean When it Comes to the Uyghurs?

Guest-blog by David Malamud (Third-year PhD student in the BU Graduate Program in Religion) 

This summer, Buzzfeed’s four-part series of articles exposed the gargantuan extent of the Uyghur and Kazakh concentration camps in western China. The articles reignited coverage of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in the US media. Buzzfeed’s reports have inspired the editorial boards of other news outlets across a wide political and ideological spectrum, including the Washington Post and the New York Post, to take a stance against the human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government. These atrocities have been recognized in the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 passed by the 116th Congress and signed into law by President Trump. I remember first reading rumors about these atrocities several years ago, while working on my undergraduate degree. I have since watched with horror and felt frustrated by my inability to do anything about it.

Like many Americans, I grew up hearing the tales of Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust. It always disturbed me to hear about the indifference that allowed the Nazis to act with impunity. The world watched and did nothing. How could the whole world stand by as the Nazis exterminated my people and attempted to erase the very memory of our existence? Many people and politicians invoke Holocaust comparisons to describe current events, but I think in this case, the comparison is particularly apt. 

A recent BU conference showed the link between discrimination and economic exploitation of Jews during the Nazi period. Like the Nazis, the Chinese government and businesses are profiting economically from the forced labor of the imprisoned Uyghur population. This exploitation extends to their very bodies. In July, a thirteen-ton shipment of Uyghur hair was seized by US Customs and Border Patrol. In many ways, we are complicit in this exploitation. Uyghurs have been forcibly detained in work camps to produce PPE for COVID-19 exported to the US. As this fact became clear, US House of Representatives responded by passing a bipartisan bill 406-3: the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would “prevent certain imports” and “impose sanctions” on products from Xinjiang. But this is not enough to stop the Chinese government-sponsored exploitation and mistreatment of entire populations that are persecuted, incarcerated, tortured, and forced to live under subhuman conditions.

I cannot, in good conscience, stand silent while I watch an oppressed ethno-religious minority destroyed by a powerful authoritarian regime intent on ethnic and religious purity and obedience to the state. I was taught in Hebrew school to say, “Never Again.” As some of our fellow Jews claim with regard to the American immigration crisis, “Never Again is now.”

I am heartened by the growing number of Jewish institutions, including Bnai Brith Canada and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who are calling for a vigorous response to the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs. Jewish individuals, such as Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, have denounced China’s actions as well. For the past year and a half, a British Orthodox Jew (“Andrew”) has protested every Tuesday and Wednesday at the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London. I am proud to have joined the nascent Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom. We are an international and interdenominational Jewish organization which seeks to foster student advocacy, lobby Jewish organizations, and support Uyghurs in their diaspora.

What can we do for people suffering under a powerful authoritarian regime halfway around the world? If you would like to stay up to date on current news or join the fight for Uyghur freedom in a Jewish context, please subscribe to JMUF or learn how to take action lobbying for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Join with Uyghur activists like Ziba Murat and Jewher Ilham’s who have called on us to #boycottMulan, Disney’s latest Live Action film. Not only was it filmed in Xinjiang, but it also credits the “publicity department” or the Chinese government’s propaganda wing in Xinjiang, and the “bureau of public security” of Turpan, a city in Xinjiang, and an organization directly responsible for the Uyghur genocide. Uyghur activists have also recently called on the ICC to deny Beijing the honor of another Olympics in 2022. 

Join me! Never Again is Now.

David Malamud is a PhD student in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean tract. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Jewish Studies, a BA in History, and a BA in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park (2018). His research interests include sectarianism and messianism in Second Temple Judaism, the development of canon in early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and broader questions of religious and cultural identity and exchange in the Eastern Roman Empire.