By Sonia Skolnik
When I had first heard about the Uyghur crisis, I, like most Americans, did not know very much about the Uyghur Muslims or the oppression they face. The Chinese government has been falsely labeling the concentration camps the Uyghurs are forced into as “re-education camps.” All I had ever heard about the genocide was the controversy over the live-action Disney movie “Mulan,” which was filmed only a few miles away from Uyghur concentration camps.
Once I began to get educated on the subject, and understood the true extent of the human rights abuses, I was disgusted by the horrible things that were being inflicted upon the Uyghur people, and shocked that more people weren’t aware and outraged by this extremely pressing issue. That is how I knew that helping to spread awareness about the Uyghur genocide was something I wanted to take part in. I decided to make this the mitzvah project for my bat mitzvah.
Genocide involves a series of human rights abuses against a minority group with the goal of their disappearance as a group. The Holocaust, a genocide against European Jews during World War II, has many similarities to the Uyghur genocide. Both of these groups’ persecutions are because of religion. During the Holocaust, approximately 6 million Jews were murdered. Since 2014, when the Uyghur genocide started, the birth rates of the Uyghur people have decreased significantly and Uyghur population increase has plummeted by 84 percent. We cannot ignore the likeness between the two any longer; we cannot let history repeat itself.
Although this project is something I might not have gotten involved with if it weren’t for my bat mitzvah, I now consider it to be a fundamental part of what defines my experience with Judaism. It has helped me to feel more connected within the community at my synagogue, feel stronger as a Jewish person, and overall has made many aspects of Judaism more meaningful for me.
Part of what this mitzvah project entailed was that I attended several monthly peaceful protests for Uyghur rights outside of the Chinese Embassy. Each protest had a specific focal point for a different aspect of the Uyghur genocide. (For example, one of them was centered around Uyghur women and the forced sterilizations and abortions they are subjected to.)
I also sent emails and calls to companies that still use Uyghur slave labor, and wrote and presented a Genocide awareness speech at my middle school. My main project was assisting in organizing the Uyghur Crisis Response Team’s October protest, which focused on boycotting the upcoming Beijing 2022 Olympics. It was amazing for me to see that very soon after our October vigil, the United States decided to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which is an important step forward.
In 1936, Hitler used the Olympics as a platform for the Nazi agenda. And today, the Olympics are still a tremendous public relations opportunity for the host country. I felt it was important to both support the diplomatic boycott, as well as to encourage major sponsors of the Olympics to change their course — sponsors like Coca-Cola, Visa, AirBnB, Intel, Omega, P & G, Samsung and Toyota. These companies all make billions of dollars in their trade with China.
My mom, Masha Belenky, who attended several of these monthly protests with me, immigrated from the former Soviet Union when she was 18 years old. As Jews living under the communist regime that governed Russia at the time, they did not have religious freedom, as Uyghur Muslims do not have today in China. Once my grandparents had applied to emigrate, they became “refuseniks.” My mother couldn’t tell any of her friends what was happening. My grandmother, an academic scientist, was harassed as a “hooligan.”
When my mom was very down, they would sometimes try to get an American station on their small radio. They felt a great deal of comfort and joy when they heard that people in America were protesting on behalf of Soviet Jews.
People they didn’t even know were protesting for them and their right to emigrate. It gave her strength and hope. Hearing my mother’s story gave me more determination to continue to be involved in these monthly demonstrations at the Chinese Embassy.
My mom and her parents were the first of their family to leave the Soviet Union, and for a long time they didn’t know if many of their closest family members would be granted exit visas. They didn’t know if they would ever see them again. My mom and grandparents attended many demonstrations once they were in America to free their family members and all oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union.
With my mom’s family in mind, I know that no matter what it is you’re doing, fighting for justice and human rights is never insignificant. Even if that one letter you’re writing or that one protest you’re attending won’t directly change anything, it still makes a difference. Everything has an impact, no matter how small, and everything adds up to a larger impact which makes change happen.
Sonia Skolnik is an 8th-grader at Alice Deal Middle School and a member of Adas Israel Congregation. Adas Israel’s Uyghur Crisis Response Team will lead protests at the Chinese Embassy, at 6 p.m. on Jan. 27 and Feb. 24.