One of the most powerful and enduring messages of the Torah is that all humanity is created in the Image of God. The inherent Divinity in every human being, regardless of any of their defining characteristics such as gender, race or religion is so fundamental, it is the very first lesson we are taught about our own creation in the story of Genesis.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches us that the reason God initially created one human from whom all humanity would descend was to establish the absolute unity of mankind. With the same ancestor, no one individual or racial group could argue that their lineage was superior. Accordingly, this would act as a catalyst to bring about peace between different peoples.
In a similar vein, the Midrash recounts a famous dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai regarding the most fundamental verse in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva suggests the verse “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), whereas Ben Azzai responds with, “This is the book of the generations of Adam; in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He made him” (Genesis 5:1).
Rabbi Akiva’s verse expresses the Golden Rule of ethics found in all major religions. But Ben Azzai’s point is far deeper. Rather than an expression of ethical reciprocity, Ben Azzai recognises the unity of humanity through the creation story.
I have had the honour of speaking at Holocaust Memorial Day events, both in my previous community of Northwood United Synagogue and at local commemorations including at the Imperial War Museum. I passionately believe that Holocaust education was never meant to be just about us. It was never exclusively about the survival of the Jews or the injustices that were perpetrated against us. It was about global human decency, morality, and justice. The clarion call of “Never again”, can not only mean never again to the Jews. To carry its full moral weight, it must mean never again to anyone.
If we remain silent in the face of the flagrant abuse and persecution against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, if we turn away from the dehumanisation of one group of people because of their religion and religious practises, we will be repeating the mistakes of history and, in doing so, we will have failed in one of our most fundamental moral duties. The test of our moral self worth is not in how much we share the sentiment of Holocaust education, it is in whether we are prepared to act and bear testimony to the victims of persecution.
Silence is capitulation and capitulation is immoral.
Human rights such as the freedom of expression of religion are so fundamental to a fair and democratic society we take them for granted. Religious minorities in other countries are not so blessed.
The persecution of this small ethnic group, only because of their religious practices, is painfully reminiscent of the images of our own people during the Shoah. Can we really ignore the chilling images of hundreds of Uighur Muslims chained together and blindfolded, then herded onto trains bound for “re-education camps”? What of the reports of hair and organs being harvested?
It seems that the world has not yet learned the lessons of the Shoah. China is a world superpower with enough influence and economic clout to silence governments across the world. What could our outcry possibly achieve if those entrusted to lead their countries with moral responsibility fail to act out of fear? No one wants to be alone when standing up to a bully. And besides, what difference will it likely make to those Uighur Muslims suffering at their hands? Yet as Holocaust survivor, political activist, and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel wrote, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
History will judge us on how we respond to these injustices. And although those people thousands of miles away may never hear our cries, their relatives, their friends, and their people certainly will.
If we wish to be written into the pages of history on the side of righteousness, justice and truth, if we care about our moral and religious imperatives, if we truly recognise the image of God in others who are different to us, at the very least we must make our voices heard loud and clear.
We will never stand by passively as silent observers in the face of tyranny and hatred.
Moshe Freedman is rabbi of New West End Synagogue