OPINION: Why I’m focused on the Uyghur genocide this Passover

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OPINION: Why I’m focused on the Uyghur genocide this Passover

‘We as Jews do not have the option to focus only inward,’ writes Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz

Uyghur Muslims held in 're-education' camps in north west China
Uyghur Muslims held in 're-education' camps in north west China

As we in America are experiencing, and those in the UK know all too well, antisemitism is becoming far too common a part of our everyday lives. People often ask me, then: Why are you spending so much time and energy on “non-Jewish” issues, such as the Uyghur genocide in China?

I tell them that I am looking to the legacy of Elie Wiesel, whose experience as a Holocaust survivor was precisely his reason for fighting against injustice all over the world. So too with us, just as we’re forced to fiercely defend ourselves, we must also carry out our mission in all places, of creating a world devoid of hate, violence and persecution.

Around the time of Pesach, I’m reminded again and again that liberation is just the start of the Jewish journey. We’re freed from bondage in Egypt, yes, for our own sake, but also so that we can get to Mount Sinai and learn how to establish justice. And so, I see it as a moral imperative for us to live out the purpose of our freedom — the freedom we sadly still have to regularly fight for.

Just as an average Egyptian benefitted from the slave labour of the Jews, with the massive corporations involved in the Uygur genocide, we as consumers share some complicity.

Even though the simplest thing to do might be to give up on this issue in favour of focusing solely on ourselves, the Pesach narrative inspires us to keep dreaming that, despite apparent despair, the seemingly impossible can indeed happen.

As we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

We must be like Nachshon, who, according to midrashim, entered the Red Sea before it had even split, showing us that, before we can expect anything spectacular to happen, we first have to take action. We must be like Moshe, who, despite his lowly status and lack of speaking skills, spoke truth to Pharaoh.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz. Pic: social media

Elie Wiesel, after surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a child, dedicated his life to fighting for justice for people all over the world, including Jews in the Soviet Union, Blacks in South Africa, Miskito Indians in Nicaragua and many, many more. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and his literature and legacy inspire us to carry on his mission to this day.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel said: “Of course, since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my people’s memory and tradition, my first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises. For I belong to a traumatized generation, one that experienced the abandonment and solitude of our people.

“It would be unnatural for me not to make Jewish priorities my own: Israel, Soviet Jewry, Jews in Arab lands … But there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism. To me, Andrei Sakharov‘s isolation is as much of a disgrace as Josef Biegun’s imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa’s right to dissent. And Nelson Mandela‘s interminable imprisonment.”

And so, I don’t think we as Jews have the option to focus only inward. We’re instead called to step outside of our comfort zone and follow in the footsteps of Moshe, Nachshon, Rabbi Tarfon and Elie Wiesel. Each year on Passover, we imagine ourselves escaping from Egypt in every generation. Just as every generation of Jews has been freed, every generation of Jews is called to be liberators and pursuers of justice.


On April 17 and 18, shortly before Passover, the Elie Wiesel Foundation is holding a conference in New York on Disrupting Uyghur Genocide. The event will have around 60 speakers, including Elie Wiesel’s remarkable son, Elisha, who in the years following his father’s death, embraced the need to help others continue his father’s work.

In addition to his very successful career in finance, he now is at the forefront of defending Jews and of moving the Uyghur genocide issue to the forefront of the American moral consciousness. For those who can’t join the conference, there’s a Take Action page, where you can find all sorts of ways to support the cause of the Uyghurs.

This Passover, let’s show ourselves and the world what it means to be a truly free and radically responsible Jewish people.

• Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (a national Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership center), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (a Jewish Social Justice organization), the Founder and President of Shamayim (a Jewish animal advocacy movement), the Founder and President of YATOM, (the Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 24 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. 

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