Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies - the largest Jewish organisation in the UK. On Wednesday, she and people around the world marked Holocaust Memorial Day reminding us all that ‘never again’ must we allow the kind of atrocities committed by the Nazis to eliminate Jewish people and other ‘undesirable’ groups of people. But, this week, Marie van der Zyl did something else less predictable for a leading Jew. She sent a letter to the British Prime Minister pressing him to increase pressure to discourage the Chinese authorities’ persecution of Uighur Muslims in north-west China. ‘She was,’ she said, ‘extremely hesitant to consider comparisons with the Holocaust’. However, she believed that Jews have the ‘moral authority and duty’ to speak out.
The Uighur Muslims who live in Xinjiang province are being subject to persecution by the Chinese authorities. It is estimated that about one million of them are confined in ‘re-education camps’ where they may be subject to starvation, torture, forced organ extraction, sterilization, slave labour and all the other obscenities in the armoury of tyrants. The official Chinese government line is that these people are militants trying to foment unrest.
The Jewish Chronicle, Ms van der Zyl and other religious and secular leaders who have joined the campaign to support the Uighurs hoped that their campaign statement would support a parliamentary move to force the British government to reconsider trade deals with a country guilty of committing genocide. The bill failed narrowly.
There may be political manoeuvring going on behind the scenes of which we are unaware but this campaign, supported by many leading Jews, seems like a bold and brave gesture. It is an attempt to look beyond one’s own suffering or that of one’s own group - historical, religious and ethnic - to a wider picture. It is a movement away from one’s own painful experiences of victimhood to try and understand the pain of others. It is a brave attempt to look further than the limitations of one’s own trench.
Perhaps some Jews will criticize the move as disrespectful to the victims of Auschwitz and all the other Nazi hells-on-earth. And it may well be asked why Jews are not showing similar empathy towards those Muslims closer to home in Israel-Palestine.
But this attempt by British Jews to press for government recognition of this hidden holocaust is worthy of praise. It offers a lesson to us all, individuals and communities. The only way to create movement and change in our highly polarized, highly opinionated, highly defended world is for individuals and groups to engage in acts which demonstrate a generous spirit of human solidarity. To move beyond sloganeering. To move beyond caricature. To resist the temptation to place blame on others to detract attention from our own shirking of responsibility.
Of course it involves effort on all our parts. They may only be signing a petition or resisting attempts in neighbourly conversation to blame others. It may simply involve trying to stand up to small local attempts at bullying or victimization. But if ‘never again’ is to be anything other than a forlorn hope it will be realized largely through individual and corporate efforts to remove that kindling to which tyrants can set light.