Jews, human rights, and the Uyghurs

As Jews and as human rights advocates, we have so many battles to fight

July 07, 2021 18:47

Too many human rights tragedies and humanitarian crises have commanded our attention and demanded action in the first two decades of the 21st century alone: Afghanistan and Iraq; Sudan and Darfur; Syria and Yemen.  Just this year the conflict between Ethiopia and Tigray—and the military coup on top of the persecution of the Rohingya—have put millions more people at grave risk of atrocities.  In the Nineties we witnessed genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda; in the Seventies and Eighties it was Cambodia.  After the Holocaust, we said “never again” but three quarters of a century later, we are confronted with “still now” as evil remains on the march with impunity.  

That is certainly the case with China’s oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority.  Over the last year, serious allegations have become established facts: massive incarceration and invasive surveillance; forced labor and coerced sterilization; cultural assimilation and desecration.  Even with the scale of killings unknown, we know that these are elements of genocide.  

The Jewish Community Conference Supporting the Uyghurs reflects the commitment of the British Jewish community and its non-Jewish friends to move from Anguish to Action as the title of the event implores us.   This commitment is inspiring but not surprising.  

The Jewish experience is of course both unique and universal, from its ethical values to its historical legacies.  Our tradition is far more ecumenical than parochial.  Indeed, the contemporary international human rights movement has been inspired by those Jewish values and legacies, by Jewish leaders and activists, as brilliantly set forth by the historian James Loeffler in Rooted Cosmopolitans—Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. It was a Polish émigré Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, who invented and promoted the term “genocide” and then as an American staff lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, who was responsible for its inclusion in the “war crimes” count brought against Nazi leaders.

Many of those Jewish leaders and activists who made that history came from the two countries I know best: the US where I am a proud patriotic citizen and had the privilege of serving as a human rights diplomat; the UK where I was also educated and whose history of struggle for liberty and democracy has  been a touchstone through my political and professional life.

The contribution of British Jews alone to the contemporary human rights movement is towering and enduring.  Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig was not only an early leader among Jewish Zionists and among those at the forefront of the effort to rescue Jews from the onset of the Second World War; after the war he worked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt to lay the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He was also a mentor to the young Peter Solomon (later Peter Benenson) who sixty years ago founded Amnesty International.  Their unique Jewish values indeed became universal values; their activism was dedicated to the human rights of all peoples.

American Jews have also played an enormous part in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.  One was the oil man turned leader of the American Jewish Committee Jacob Blaustein who declared that “The rights of Jews will only be secure when the rights of people of all faiths are equally secure.”  Another continues to be Aryeh Neier, who was the longtime leader of Human Rights Watch and then the Open Society Institute.

I was inspired by Rabbi Joseph Asher at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco where I was born and raised.  In 1938, he was able to leave Germany for London where he studied at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva and Jew’s College, now the London School of Jewish Studies. He was then interned by the British government after Dunkirk in the wave of xenophobia against German refugees, went to Australia and then came to the U.S. where later he was one of only two local white clergy in Greensboro, North Carolina to join sit-ins with Black clergy in the early days of the civil rights movement. 

Many years later, I was blessed to work side-by-side with U.S. Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat to bring “imperfect justice” to Holocaust survivors in Israel, Europe, the US and around the world whose possessions and assets had been confiscated—and worse, to those who suffered unimaginably as slave laborers in Nazi factories.  The justice we sought was not just for our fellow Jews and Americans; our quest was to establish the principles of restitution and accountability for the mostly forgotten dimensions of the Holocaust that could also be applied to other situations and peoples.

As Jews and as human rights advocates, we have so many battles to fight: to combat the continuing scourge of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic; to overcome the continuing realities of racial injustice in our countries; to respect the rights of all Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians.

But this fight with and for the Uyghurs must be our fight too.  As an oppressed religious minority, their cause is our cause.  The fact that they are Muslims should not matter, but it does matter.  One of the many great challenges of this twenty-first century is to find common ground among the three Abrahamic faiths—and among all faiths and peoples to whom human rights belong.  Never again, but still now we must act.

Bennett Freeman will be speaking at the Jewish community conference on the Uyghurs this Sunday, 5-8pm, online via

Bennett Freeman serves on the Steering Committee of the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor.  He was US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1999-2001.  As Senior Advisor to Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, he directed the State Department’s diplomacy and historical research related to Holocaust-era assets from 1997-99 and through 2000 represented the US on the Task Force that became the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).  At the request of the Swedish government, he drafted the January 2000 Stockholm Declaration that remains the founding document of the IHRA.

July 07, 2021 18:47

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