‘Chilling Echoes’: British Jews Join the Fight for Uighur Human Rights in China

What started out as a one-man protest over reported abuse of Muslim minority groups has, nearly two years on, become a wider Jewish protest movement where memories of the Holocaust are never far from demonstrators’ minds

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Andrew, front, center, and fellow protesters demonstrating outside the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London.
Andrew, front, center, and fellow protesters demonstrating outside the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London.Credit: Andrew
shachar peled
Shachar Peled

LONDON – Every Tuesday and Wednesday night, rain or shine, he’s there: an Orthodox Jewish man holding a protest sign in front of a Chinese Embassy building in Hampstead, an affluent neighborhood in northwest London.

He’s demonstrating against the alleged atrocities taking place in China’s far-west Xinjiang province, where millions of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are reportedly being detained in camps or used as forced labor.

Andrew, a northwest London resident, prefers to be identified only by his first name. He’s a businessman in his 50s, married with children, and fears potential repercussions from the Chinese.

“It’s more for security than for any other reason; we’re dealing with serious matters and people disappear – but we can’t sit idly by,” he told Haaretz over the phone. “I’m a typical Haredi Jew, I’m not an activist. This isn’t my normal day-to-day life,” he says. But in early 2019, when pictures of the Uighur indoctrination camps emerged in the press, he says he felt something had to be done.

“That was a turning point for me. Growing up, my mother said to me ‘The world let the Holocaust happen’ – that they could have stopped it but it wasn’t a priority. So I had to do something,” Andrew says.

Having relatives he never met massacred by the Nazi invaders in Lithuania and his wife’s grandparents shipped to Auschwitz, Andrew decided he couldn’t sit at home any longer.

Andrew demonstrating alone outside the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London.Credit: Andrew

“But what could I do against what is becoming the world’s greatest power?” he asks. “They have all the money, resources and propaganda. I have literally nothing. But I’m a religious man and I believe in the Hanukkah story of the few against the many and the mighty.”

So he picked up a cardboard box, printed “3 Million Muslims in Concentration Camps” on it, and walked down to where the cultural section of the Chinese Embassy stood not far from his house. Almost two years later, he’s still at it, and what started as a one-person protest sees now between 10 to 30 demonstrators every week. Many of the protesters are members of the British Jewish community, with others also attending.

Showing true persistence, Andrew continued his protest even when visiting his children in Israel. Every week he parked himself outside the Chinese ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah north of Tel Aviv.

The legacy of ‘Never Again’

It was around the time of Andrew’s initial protest that Mia Hasenson-Gross – the executive director of Jewish human rights group René Cassin – met for the first time with Rahima Mahmut, a Uighur who lives in Britain. (The group is named for the French-Jewish jurist who co-drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.)

“She told me her personal story and then there was this déjà vu moment when you think ‘I’ve heard this story before’ and you realize it’s actually your story – and the Jewish story,” Hasenson-Gross recalls.

A protester from the Uighur community holding an anti-China placard during a protest in Istanbul, October 1, 2020, against what they allege is oppression by the Chinese government to Muslim Uighurs.Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

Mahmut, who moved to Britain in 2000, grew up in the 1970s in a religious Muslim family as part of the Uighur community in Xingjiang, or the northern part of East Turkistan, as she calls it. “I used to wake up hearing my father reciting the Koran,” she says from her London home. “When my family prayed, they would lock the gate and we were always warned not to tell people that we prayed, because the police would take us away.”

Years later, Mahmut says she continued to suffer from prejudice and discrimination in China, ranging from employers who refused to hire her – even though she graduated with merit as a petrochemical engineer – to hotels turning her away because “Uighurs were not welcome.” Today she’s the project director of the World Uyghur Congress and an adviser to the British Parliament, working alongside René Cassin to raise awareness about the Uighurs’ plight.

“As a human rights organization, it was a no-brainer,” Hasenson-Gross says. “Our essence is promoting human rights as a legacy of the Holocaust, the genocide which was supposed to be the ‘Never Again genocide.’ It was obvious we had to bring this to the knowledge of the Jewish community.”

The group, which has been operating in Britain for 20 years, set the scene at an event back in the spring of 2019. It was preceded by an op-ed in the London weekly Jewish News by barrister Amy Woolfson, who wrote: “As Jews, I believe we have a special responsibility to bear witness to what is happening, and to speak up whenever we can.”

Spiritual leaders and other Jewish organizations joined the cause, including the Board of Deputies, which hosted an event in Parliament and wrote a letter to the Chinese ambassador. Also on board were youth movements that took part in informal education sessions on the subject, and the U.K. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who published an op-ed in The Guardian last week urging readers to take action.

“This is a subject which the chief rabbi believes we all have a moral obligation to speak out about,” a spokesman for the rabbi told Haaretz. Mirvis’ op-ed was cited in a debate in Parliament and gained attention in the press and on social media; members of the public then sent messages to their representatives.

“Perhaps most gratifying of all is the emails we are now seeing from people of all faiths and backgrounds who are heeding the chief rabbi’s call to action,” the rabbi’s office wrote in a statement to Haaretz.

A screen grab of a Jewish-Uighur Hanukkah lighting event, December 13, 2020.Credit: Rene Cassin

Taking a stand

Hasenson-Gross also partnered with Jewish News, which launched a campaign for the Uighurs’ cause. “For us, it all started when news emerged of this shipment of 13 tons of human hair on its way to America,” says Justin Cohen, the news editor at Jewish News. (The hair is believed to have been forcefully taken from detained Uighurs.)

“I think when that was first brought up in our news meeting, it obviously carried a particular resonance, and we felt that was the moment where we really had to take a stand,” Cohen says. In July, the story was published on the paper’s front page, titled “Chilling Echoes.”

According to Cohen, it could be argued that the paper was slow to react, but ultimately realized that the Uighurs’ plight is a story that the Jewish community needs to speak out on.

“Whenever people suggest an equivalence between the Holocaust and anything else, we would balk on the suggestion. But on this occasion we wanted to draw attention to the parallels; they were unavoidable,” he says.

Andrew protesting outside the residence of the Chinese ambassador to Israel in Herzliya Pituah.Credit: Andrew

The newspaper, René Cassin and the World Uyghur Congress launched a petition signed by 150 lawmakers urging the British government to pressure Beijing and take action against China’s persecution of the Uighurs – so far, to no avail.

Some progress has been made, Hasenson-Gross notes, such as an amendment passed by the House of Lords this month empowering the High Court to nullify any British trade agreement with a country committing genocidal acts. “This is the closest the U.K. has come, but it hasn’t called out China against these acts, or called them genocidal,” she says.

Britain desperately needs China, especially because of Brexit and the need for a new trade deal, according to Hasenson-Gross. “China holds countries like that on a short leash, conditioning trade agreements with the absence of public criticism. It’s an economic dependency, as is the case of Israel,” she argues.

“How come no official authority has spoken up? Wasn’t the whole pretext of the State of Israel the Never Again principle? The vision is failing the whole pretext for its creation,” she adds.

Andrew is now shifting his attention to some of these commercial dependencies. He has spearheaded more sporadic demonstrations in front of Volkswagen showrooms. The German company still operates a car plant in Xinjiang and has a dark past using forced labor in concentration camps and factories under the Nazis. Moving the Chinese government might prove difficult, but Andrew hopes that with more people standing in front of VW garages, it will make a difference.

“I feel quite angry,” Andrew says. “The Xinjiang region is literally halfway around the world, it’s got nothing to do with me, I shouldn’t be spending so much of my time doing this, but nobody else is. I can’t sit still.”

Andrew and a fellow protester outside a Volkswagen showroom in northwest London.Credit: Andrew

Touching a particular nerve

Religious and ethnic discrimination, especially against Muslim minorities, has reportedly been taking place in China since the 10-year Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976. But the reports coming out of China since 2016, when a hard-line governor was appointed in Xinjiang, home to some 12 million Uighurs, pointed to a grave escalation.

Ethnic profiling, mass arrests, the construction of “re-education camps” and prisons in the name of tackling Muslim extremism, alongside reports of forced labor, physical abuse, sterilization of Uighur women and organ harvesting, have emerged.

Mahmut, who had last heard from her siblings in 2017 – because Uighurs have been arrested for overseas phone calls or installing WhatsApp – started contacting lawmakers and journalists, but received no response. “It was very quiet and very frustrating,” she says.

Only in August 2018, when the United Nations acknowledged that millions were being held in so-called counter-extremism centers and forced into re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination, did the tides begin to shift. Mahmut was invited to testify in Parliament, and was approached by Woolfson, the barrister who had been following Mahmut’s plight, igniting the Jewish community’s involvement in raising awareness.

“The Jewish people don’t need to be warned about genocide. We know it doesn’t happen overnight. We know it starts with a culture being demonized, and with hate and repression becoming normal,” Woolfson wrote in her article.

Cohen adds: “The Holocaust didn’t begin in the gas chambers, it began in prejudice and plans to suppress and wipe out a whole culture.”

China denies all allegations about its treatment of the Uighur community, and says it equally protects the rights and interests of its ethnic minorities. It says the re-education camps are vocational education and training centers as part of its counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures.

For Mamut, the support from the U.K.’s Jewish community is a life jacket. “It’s so heart-moving,” she says. “I felt very alone, that we’re persecuted mainly because of our religion. And when I spoke with others about the parallels of the Holocaust, I received this empathy, the feeling of helplessness you can relate to when you hear the story of the Uighur people – even though we are a different race and religion.”

She adds that the Muslim world has remained largely quiet, and this is hurtful. “Muslim governments are really shameful by not speaking up and rather signing off support for China. But if I feel l was single-handed in the past, now I know that there are people who are joining me and taking up this cause and giving me emotional and moral support.”

Cohen, meanwhile, says “the British Jewish community has a long record of standing up when minorities are feeling oppression.” He has a theory for why the U.K. community, which numbers some 250,000, is especially vocal on the matter.

“It doesn’t take much to get the community behind social action and human rights campaigns,” he says. “And when we see a story about piles of hair, or forced sterilization, or those images emerging of people being forced into trains on tracks, it touches a particular nerve.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: