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Pharaoh Xi

This Passover, we think of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and other captive peoples whose struggle for freedom and cultural survival parallels our own

Carl Gershman
April 05, 2023
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
Chinese soldiers patrol in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on July 15, 2009Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Last December I was invited to deliver opening remarks at the first international conference on the preservation of Uyghur culture. Everyone at the conference was engaged in the struggle to defend the survival of Uyghurs living inside China where they face a systematic campaign by the Chinese regime to destroy their culture, religion, language, and identity. The community of Uyghur exiles is doing everything in its power to inform the world about the genocide that’s underway in China and to mobilize international pressure to stop it. But the focus of the conference was not about that struggle but rather about the role that Uyghurs living in exile can play in preserving Uyghur culture that is now so deeply threatened inside China. 

The Chinese government has been trying to eliminate Uyghur identity since the communists took power in 1949, especially during the Cultural Revolution and the campaign against the Four Olds when books, cultural artifacts, and Qurans were burned and mosques were demolished as part of an attempt to eradicate everything that was sacred to Uyghurs and sustained their traditions and identity. But the regime has recently escalated its assault on the Uyghurs. Since 2017 it has arbitrarily detained up to 3 million Uyghurs in state concentration camps, criminalized the practice of Islam, and has used forced sterilization and other measures to prevent births, showing that its intention is to terminate not just Uyghur culture but the very existence of the Uyghur people.

The CCP’s crimes against the Uyghurs have been the subject of numerous expert reports, including one released in August by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. A report issued in 2019 by the Uyghur Human Rights Project documents the demolition of mosques and notes that Beijing launched a “Mosque Rectification Program” in 2016 that destroyed as many as 5,000 in just three months. The Uyghur cultural leadership has been hit especially hard, with The Guardian reporting that Uyghur activists in 2020 had produced a list of almost 400 writers, poets, teachers, scholars and other intellectuals who had been imprisoned from 2016-20.

The attack on Uyghur culture has less to do with a particular antipathy by the regime toward Uyghurs as a people than with the totalitarian character of the Chinese political system, which cannot tolerate any kind of cultural, religious or political diversity that limits the total control of society by the communist state. The Tibetan people have long been subjected to what the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide,” in resistance to which some 160 Tibetan monks, nuns, and ordinary people have self-immolated since 2009. While the Dalai Lama has not endorsed the desperate act of self-immolation, he has recognized it as a form of nonviolent resistance to the regime’s repression that is as much a threat to the survival of the Tibetan people as it is to the Uyghurs. And like the Uyghurs today but much earlier, the Dalai Lama has also recognized the urgent need to develop a strategy for cultural and religious survival.

It was for this reason that in 1989, the year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama invited Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and seven other rabbis and Jewish scholars to visit Dharamsala, the center of the Tibetan exile, to help Tibetans understand how Jews had been able to preserve their religion and culture during almost 2,000 years of exile, forced conversions, inquisitions, expulsions, and pogroms, culminating with the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. “Tell me your secret,” he said, “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The American Jewish poet Roger Kamenetz accompanied the Jewish delegates and wrote about the dialogue that ensued in his book The Jew in the Lotus that was published in 1994.

It was not long after that, in 1997, that the Dalai Lama attended a Passover Seder in Washington organized by Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I attended that “Passover Seder Freedom Celebration” and remember it well. The Dalai Lama was especially interested in the importance the celebration attached to involving the children at the Seder table in telling the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and answering their questions about it. He saw this ceremony as part of a comprehensive educational process of passing Judaism and the history and identity of the Jewish people on from generation to generation, and he said that Tibetans should “copy some of the Jewish determination and the techniques they have used to keep their identity, their religious faith, their traditions under difficult circumstances.”

The Dalai Lama has said that Tibetans should ‘copy some of the Jewish determination and the techniques they have used to keep their identity, their religious faith, their traditions under difficult circumstances.’

During Passover 2021, a Uyghur Freedom Seder was organized by Jewish World Watch and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. I was asked to compose a prayer to be recited at the point in the Seder immediately following a prayer by Rabbi Akiva, the second-century sage whom the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the guardian of hope for the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This was when the exile began, I said, and it was one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, not unlike the current period for the Uyghurs. Rabbi Akiva was a young man when Jerusalem was destroyed, and the story is told that years later, when he and other sages were looking down from Mount Scopus on the ruins of the Temple, they saw a fox walking through the place that was once the Holy of Holies. The other sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva comforted them saying, “Since the prophecies of destruction have come true, the prophecies of consolation will also come true. The day will come when, in Zechariah’s words, ‘Once again men and women of a ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem … and the city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’”

I said in my Seder prayer that it was the hope and faith of Rabbi Akiva that helped sustain the Jewish people through the many centuries of exile while the empires pledged to their destruction vanished from the face of the earth, and that today his vision has become a reality with the rebirth of State of Israel. At the Uyghur conference on cultural survival, I added the thought that while hope and faith are life-giving and essential, they’re not sufficient. Human agency is also essential, I said, noting the statement that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, is most remembered for: “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

I explained that another ancient sage, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, took such action at the time of the destruction the Second Temple, thereby making it possible for the Jewish people to survive in exile. He was present in Jerusalem during the period of massive unrest and civil conflict that led to the first Jewish-Roman war and the siege of Jerusalem. He belonged to the peace party among the Jews, but having failed in his attempt to persuade the militant Zealots to compromise with the Romans, and seeing the fall of Jerusalem as inevitable, he determined in advance of the looming catastrophe to establish a place of refuge for Judaism.

I told the story of how Rabbi Yohanan had himself hidden in a coffin and surreptitiously smuggled out of Jerusalem. He then made his way to the Roman camp where he met with Titus, the military commander who was to become the future Roman emperor. He asked only that he be permitted to settle in Yavne (a city 40 miles west of Jerusalem on the coastal plain) and to establish a school there. According to the historian Heinrich Graetz, “Titus readily granted this modest request without suspecting that by this insignificant act Judaism would be enabled to survive the all-powerful Roman empire for thousands of years.” Rabbi Yohanan transformed the school into a religious center with all the religious and juridical functions previously exercised in Jerusalem by the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jews. The new Sanhedrin fixed the festival calendar and made the crucial decision to replace burnt offerings that could no longer be made in the Temple with prayer and charitableness, citing Hosea that “I desire mercy and not sacrifices.” He and other rabbis also began drafting the Talmud, the foundational text of Jewish thought and aspiration and a guide for daily living. In a word, Rabbi Yohanan laid the cornerstone for the construction of Rabbinic Judaism, “the completion of which,” according to Graetz, “could safely be entrusted to posterity.”

According to Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, steps toward cultural preservation and survival are already being taken by Uyghurs in the diaspora. They have established new language schools for children and are republishing books that the Chinese government has banned. They are also writing new books of scholarship and poetry; collecting and documenting cultural treasures such as historical documents, artefacts, art and music; and beginning an effort to create a new encyclopedia of Uyghur history, culture, art, literature, and scholarship. By so doing, they are taking advantage of the intellectual freedom and cultural spaces that exist in the United States and other countries to take actions that are not possible today in the Uyghur heartland.

Uyghurs in the diaspora have shown an interest in learning more about the Jewish experience of surviving in exile, and there is thought being given to the establishment of a Uyghur-Jewish dialogue. It goes without saying, though, that Uyghurs will have to find their path of survival by drawing upon their own distinctive historical and cultural identity. Poetry, for example, permeates Uyghur communities and will be an important part of any strategy for cultural survival. The historian Joshua L. Freeman, who translates Uyghur poetry, has written about the “Uyghurs’ unique use of poetry as a means of communal survival.” He notes that Uyghur folk poets sustained their art by memory and word of mouth during the grim years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and that their work was instrumental in reviving Uyghur culture in the 1980s. Even today, when the repression is so much harsher, poetry continues to play this vital role.

Freeman tells the story of how his old professor, Abduqadir Jalalidin, himself a famous Uyghur poet, had disappeared in 2017 along with more than a million other Uyghurs into the vast gulag of Uyghur prison camps. Freeman had heard nothing about Jalalidin’s fate until the summer of 2020, when he learned that his old professor had continued writing poems in the camps, and that his fellow inmates had managed to transmit one of them, “No Road Back Home,” to the world outside, where it is now circulating among Uyghurs far and wide.

I have no lover’s touch in this solitary corner,
I have no amulet as each night brings darker terror,
I have no further thirst for anything but life,
With anguished thoughts in crushing silence, I am left with no hope.
I cannot know who I once was, what has transpired of me,
I cannot know to whom I can speak my heart’s desires in me,
I cannot perceive the tempers or nature of this destiny,
My love, I wish to go to you, but I am left with no strength.
I have seen the seasons change between the cracks and corners,
Yet all in vain I receive no news from the blossoms and flowers,
This yearning pain has seeped right through to the marrows of my bones,
What is this place that I can come to, but I am left with no way home?

The future of the Uyghur people will depend heavily on what happens in China. Xi Jinping seems all powerful, and like other harsh dictators, he might well believe that his model of centralized power and total control is an effective form of governance that can last in perpetuity. But the massive lockdowns associated with Xi’s zero-COVID policy are but one example of unaccountable power leading to pernicious outcomes, and the protests the lockdowns provoked show that the spirit of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is not altogether extinct.

Even more threatening to China’s stability are the recent reports of the country’s collapsing birth and marriage rates, which signal, in the words of population specialist Nicholas Eberstadt, a “deep disaffection with the bleak future the regime is engineering for its subjects.” It is ironic, to say the least, that a regime that is subjecting Uyghurs to forced sterilizations and abortions now faces an existential crisis because the Han majority is increasingly unwilling to bring children into the desolate world of Chinese totalitarianism.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is therefore at least as relevant to the Uyghurs’ current circumstances as the ceremony of the Passover Seder that so impressed the Dalai Lama as a means of preserving the Jewish faith in exile. In turn, the struggle of the Uyghur people for survival will continue to have great bearing on the prospects for freedom not just in China but throughout the world. In that contest, it is clear where our history and our traditions as a people would have us stand. May it be our intention that the Passover holiday should continue to have meaning not only for Jews but also for the ancient peoples of China who are threatened with imprisonment and extinction by a modern-day Pharaoh whose ability to inflict tortures and punishments on a mass scale does not make him any less mortal.

Carl Gershman is a Senior Fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights. Previously, he was the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (1984-2021) and the Senior Counselor to Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the Alternate Representative to the U.N. Security Council (1981-84).