Here is a disturbing story about hundreds of thousands of people who are forced to pick cotton – back-breaking labor, long hours.
Sounds like a story straight out of antebellum America. It is not. This story is playing out in modern-day China. And its victims are not Black slaves but Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority group that has been feeling the boot heel of Chinese oppression for years.
According to a report from the Center for Global Policy (CGP), evidence from 2018 shows that 570,000 Uighurs and other Muslim ethic groups in the Xinjiang autonomous region of western China have been made to pick cotton by hand.
The news has “potentially drastic consequences for global supply chains,” according to the CGP, whose findings were reported in the London-based newspaper Independent. Xinjiang produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton.
But this is not a business story. This is a story about human rights (or the lack thereof). It’s a story about a people, long suffering and forgotten by much of the world.
In short, it’s a story that Jews know only too well.
The Uighurs are among the 21st century’s most repressed people. At the hands of the Chinese, they have endured mass internment (yes, concentration camps), forced sterilization of women (shades of Nazi medical experiments) beatings, religious suppression and other human rights abuses.
The Chinese government long denied even the existence of these detention centers, which hold more than one million people, but as PBS’ News Hour has reported, aerial images of the facilities finally forced them acknowledge the so-called “re-education centers.”
They claim the Uighurs hold extremist views that threaten their security.
China also has cracked down on Uighur religious practices. Men may not grow long beards. Women may not wear veils. Mosques have been destroyed.
Unlike the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, many of whom lived in developed countries, in cosmopolitan areas, the Uighurs live in remote regions, making them all the easier to forget. How many of us could even find Xinjiang on a map?
Not that Uighurs have been totally forgotten. In 2019, the Midwest Region of Peace Catalyst International, a nonprofit organization, brought Uighur advocate Rushan Abbas to the University of Louisville to speak about the incarceration of her people.
A July letter from the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Chinese leadership for the detentions. At first, the United States did not sign on, though it soon joined other nations in calling the camps a “horrific campaign of repression,” PBS reported.
And recently, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (United Kingdom), wrote an extensive op-ed in support of the Uighurs in The Guardian that attracted international attention.
Mirvis told the heartbreaking story of his conversation with an Uighur activist whose family, still in China, is in desperate straits.
“Over time they became terrified of even answering her telephone calls for fear of what it might mean for them,” Mirvis wrote. “They stopped using traditional Islamic greetings, which are forbidden, and eventually stopped answering her calls altogether. She persisted until one day, her brother answered the phone and with a tremble in his voice, he implored her: ‘Leave us in God’s hands and we will leave you in God’s hands, too.’”
The rabbi reminded his readers of something Elie Wiesel once said: “Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.”
Well, today, at this moment, we are all witnesses to the suffering of the Uighurs. There is no turning back.
We know what it means when people pretend not to hear the cries of the desperate. We know what it means to close borders, to refuse to let ships’ passengers disembark, to not bomb the railroad tracks.
We know what it means to be forgotten.
There are ways to help the Uighurs: Call your congressmen, write to the Chinese embassy. Speak at your synagogue, pressure companies implicated in forced Uighur labor to back down. More information is available at saveuighur.org.
Above all, don’t be silent. Remember, 500,000-plus Uighurs, scared, defenseless, being forced to pick cotton by hand – in the 21st century.
Jews know that is not OK.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)