Correction, Dec. 23, 2021, 12:30 p.m. The story was corrected to say that Rabbi Hyim Shafner did not sign the letter as a representative of his congregation.
About two years ago, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington gave a sermon on China’s brutal treatment of its Uyghur minority. After that, a group of congregants began protesting weekly at the Chinese Embassy.
Since then, reports have reached the West of the Chinese government sending Uyghurs, who are Muslim, to forced labor camps, sterilizing its women, separating families and razing mosques and religious schools.
The synagogue’s Uyghur Crisis Response Team has tried to increase awareness of what has been termed genocidal actions against the 12 million member Uyghur population.
The response team brought in a Uyghur human rights lawyer to speak and participate in an international Uyghur-Jewish Passover seder. The group has also assisted the local Uyghur community, including developing partnerships with local Uyghur businesses.
Their most recent effort was to initiate a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on him to make human rights a priority, support human rights activists, focus against technology that identifies people and increase the number of Uyghurs admitted to the United States as refugees.
Within a few months, more than 200 synagogues, rabbis and Jewish nonprofits signed on to the letter, which stated, “As a community that acutely remembers times when we were persecuted and unable to teach our traditions to our children, and as we painfully recall the genocide that we suffered under Nazi rule, we know that we can and must speak out against this persecution and in support of the Uyghur community.”
The letter continues, “Some governments, companies, and organizations believe working with China requires leaving their values at the door. Some believe that private advocacy with the Chinese government is more effective than public condemnation and accountability. We disagree.”
It concluded by noting, “As Jews we know what happens when people remain silent amid such atrocities. And let us be clear: the Chinese government is also targeting other ethnic and religious minorities, including Jews, Christians, Tibetans, and Mongols. Nothing parallels the persecution of Uyghurs – yet. We must speak out, and we must act now.”
“We want the message to be sent,” said Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel. “We feel like we have a unique voice based on our history as a Jewish community. We feel it has a different kind of potency coming from a community that has a living memory of genocide.”
It is important, he said, “to be on the record as a Jewish community to say sanctions aren’t enough.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington signed the letter and spoke to other JCRCs throughout the country, resulting in 10 more JCRCs signing on.
“What is happening to the Uyghurs in China is a genocide, is the absolutely horrific treatment of a people,” said JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber.
The JCRC also is speaking out with other JCRCs and the Jewish Federations of North America in an attempt to have companies stop accepting goods made with forced labor.
Trying to get China to change its ways requires economic and diplomatic efforts, Halber said.
The Biden administration announced there will be no diplomatic representation at the January Olympics and it has enforced economic sanctions.
The JCRC supports this and would like to see the rest of the world join in. “We’ve learned from the past that only when the world directs its efforts” does change come, he said.
“We can’t say we didn’t know” what was going on, Halber added.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel in Georgetown also was a signatory. He did it as an individual and not as a representative of his congregation, he said.
There is “ample evidence” of labor camps and genocide, he said, adding, “How can we as Jews sit idly by?” He then recited part of the quote by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller that begins, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, Because I was not a socialist” and ends with “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Shafner said it is important to remember, “It’s not that long ago that every third Jew was murdered.”
He believes there is a role for Jewish social action groups to play and a different role for Orthodox synagogues.
His job is to teach Torah, he said. But he hopes that when people listen to him and see that he signed the letter, which “highlights Jewish values, I hope individuals will go out in the world” and seek justice.
Through spirituality, Shafner hopes he can raise consciousness.