OPINION: On Chanukah, we must stand in solidarity with persecuted Uyghur Muslims

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OPINION: On Chanukah, we must stand in solidarity with persecuted Uyghur Muslims

To mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ilan Selby and Jonah Kaye say Jews should stand up against China's persecution of its Muslim minority

Activists standing in solidarity with Uyghur Muslims (Credit: Ilan Selby and Johan Kaye)
Activists standing in solidarity with Uyghur Muslims (Credit: Ilan Selby and Johan Kaye)

On December 10, the world will celebrate International Human Rights day, on the 72nd anniversary of the formal acceptance of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly. That same evening, Jews around the world will begin to light candles in celebration of the holiday of Chanukah. These two occasions, which coincide this year, commemorate and enshrine a resilient commitment to fight for freedom.

Yet, this freedom we hold sacred is under attack. Right now, up to three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim-majority peoples are being held in Chinese concentration camps. State documents have revealed the sheer size and scale of the detentions taking place, while survivor testimonies have alleged that internees are forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, and denounce their identity as Muslims. Detainees have alleged that they are forced to take pills, injections, and are subjected to sterilization procedures, medical experiments, organ harvesting, and, in some cases, sexual violence.

A few months before his passing, the late former philosopher, author and theologian, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote: “As a human being who believes in the sanctity of human life, I am deeply troubled by what is happening to the Uighur Muslim population in China. As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing.”

Indeed, as Jews, the story of Chanukah encapsulates both these themes of religious oppression and deep spiritual resistance.

Ilan Selby

In 167 BCE, the Seleucid Greeks extended a program of forced Helenization unto the Jewish people, desecrating their holy sites and forbidding the practice of Judaism.

Against all the odds, the maccabees struggled for their right to practice Judaism and succeeded, culminating in the rededication of the Jewish temple.

Within, they found enough oil to light the Menorah, the Jewish candelabra, for only one night.

Miraculously though, it burned for eight. Rabbi Lord Sacks often spoke of how the understanding of Chanukah changed throughout Jewish history, as Chanukah was transformed in Jewish consciousness into a story, not of military victory, but of spiritual and cultural victory. Chanukah, thus, took upon the commitment to live out and pass on Jewish education and values.

The miracle of the light which burned well beyond its natural limit became a powerful symbol of a continued Jewish light which continues to burn, illuminating our hearts and minds in the darkest moments of history.

Jonah Kaye

From our own history of religious persecution and the cultural and spiritual resilience we have taken up, we, as Jews, stand with the Uyghurs at this moment of crisis for their people, and are committed to the preservation of Uyghur freedoms, spiritual and cultural resilience, and physical continuity.

As human beings, we feel shame that on the 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in a world that claims to value the sanctity of human life and the dignity of humankind, the Chinese government continues to brutally repress the Uyghurs, in direct violation of the UDHR.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often viewed as the most influential document of the UN. Although non-legally binding, it has been the source of influence for most national compositions and constitutions since 1948, and has been the central reference point for most human rights legislation established at a sub-national, national, international and institutional level since its formal acceptance.

It is the most translated document ever; as we proclaim the universality of human rights in 524 languages. By not standing up in support of the Uyghurs, the international community has turned their collective backs on the UDHR, and has allowed another genocide to take place.

Mass sterilization programmes, the forcible transferring of children and the causing of serious bodily or mental harm to Uyghurs represent just three examples illustrating how the Genocide convention is currently being breached by the Chinese government. What further suffering need occur?

As human beings, we demand from the international community faithfulness to its own principles, and to stand by the commitment of “Never Again”, the founding promise of the United Nations. Too many times, the world has stood idly by while genocide has taken place. As Jews, we know this all too well.

As Rabbi Sacks powerfully invokes, the images of Uyghurs being loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps is a harrowing sight. Yet, despite this imagery, the international community’s commitment to the dignity of human life and the explicit commitment to the prevention of genocide following the horrors of the Shoah, has all too often been met by a lack of political will and apathetic inaction.

Accordingly, and in line with the sentiments expressed by the 50 UN experts and special rapporteurs to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2020[1], we urge the United Nations to assign a special rapporteur to Xinjiang in order to monitor the crimes being committed against the Uyghurs in China as a means of effectively documenting the rights abuses taking place. This, with a view to presenting a clear body of evidence to the international community, illustrating the clear need for concerted action.

This Chanukah, as Jews, we remember the atrocities committed against our people, and stand in solidarity with our Uyghur brothers and sisters. From our own tradition, we share a message of spiritual resilience in the face of immeasurable evil, and will work to shine a light unto the darkness. This International Human Rights day, as Jews – a people who have known statelessness and genocide – and as human beings, we call upon the United Nations to act.


This piece was co-written by Ilan Selby and Jonah Kaye, representatives of the EUJS and JMUF.

  • Ilan Selby: Based in Brussels, Belgium, Ilan Selby is both the current Policy Officer at the European Union of Jewish Students and the European Affairs Officer at B’nai B’rith International. He is originally from Glasgow and is a double graduate from the University of St. Andrews in International Relations MA (Hons) and from King’s College London in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies MA.
  • Johan Kaye: Originally from California, US, Jonah Kaye is currently the Communications Coordinator at the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom (JMUF), an international and multi-denominational Jewish movement seeking to organize Jewish communities to take action against the Chinese government’s ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people. Alongside his work at JMUF, Jonah is currently in his third-year studying at the University of Chicago for a degree in Political Philosophy and Computer Science.

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