We know the cost of apathy all too well
When I was growing up, in the decades following the Holocaust, one of the defining traits of a "proud Jew" was someone who would never think about buying a Volkswagen. For the "frummer" proud Jews, the self-imposed ban extended to all German products. But Volkswagen, which had used slave labor — Jewish and gentile — stood at the top of the totem poll of products to be avoided.
The war was over, yet the feeling remained that everything German was irremediably tainted, and that the failure of a Jew to act accordingly reflected a lack of sensitivity to the horror inflicted upon his people. The act of buying a Beetle might somehow retroactively implicate a Jew in the crimes of the Nazis, yemach shemam.
GENOCIDE AND CONCENTRATION CAMPS did not disappear from the world in 1945. Pol Pot and his legions were responsible for the deaths of approximately two million of their fellow Cambodians in their efforts to "reeducate" them. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered with machetes, over the span of a few weeks, by their Hutu neighbors in Rwanda.
And today in China, up to a million Muslim Uyghurs are being held in reeducation camps surrounded by barbed wire and high watch towers, where they are subjected to constant electronic surveillance, all as part of ongoing efforts to turn them into proper Mandarin-speaking Chinese. These reeducation camps are not Birkenau or other camps designed for extermination. Rather, the goal of the central government is the wiping out of Uyghur culture, just as it has sought to wipe out Tibetan culture for decades.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) recently released a trove of documents from the Communist Party of Xinjiang Province that reveal a uniquely 21st-century type of thought control designed, in the words of one Justice Ministry communiqué, "to wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong." Most of China's ten million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang Province.
To facilitate the crackdown on the Uyghurs, which began in 2017 with the transfer of a top Chinese party official from Tibet to Xingiang, the government developed an Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) to electronically screen the entire population. As one expert on the province remarked, "This is the only place in the world where you can be sent to prison by a computer."
Among those whose profiles landed them in jail were users of Kuai Ya, an application allowing the transfer of videos and messages, or those who applied for foreign visas. In a single week, IJOP identified nearly 25,000 suspicious persons, of whom 15,693 were placed in reeducation centers, another 700 sent to prisons (which are even harsher), and 2,000 placed under house arrest. The government was forced to build hundreds of orphanages and schools for the children of those imprisoned.
The Associated Press describes a system in which detainees are tested in Mandarin, the Chinese dialect employed for official government business and the spreading of its ideology. The results of the weekly, monthly, and seasonal tests are subject to an elaborate point system. Those who do well may be allowed family visits or even graduate. Those who do not are transferred to more rigid internment facilities.
IF YOU are like me, you have not been paying much attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, or of Christians in China persecuted for trying to practice their religion, or to China's use of slave labor. There are lots of bad things happening in the world, and we can't worry about them all. It's not, after all, as if there is anything we can do about it.
Let's think about historian David Wyman's searing indictment of the Roosevelt administration in The Abandonment of the Jews. The gates of America were closed to desperate Jews, even as immigration quotas went unused; empty troop transport ships that could have been marshaled to move trapped Jews to safer locations — and which were in fact employed in that fashion later in the war to rescue non-Jews — returned to the US empty; and toward the end of the war, US bombers could have destroyed the train lines to Auschwitz, with little danger to pilots who were freely bombing German facilities in the area.
None of that indictment applies to us individually nor as American citizens. Today, there is certainly nothing we can do on our own, nor can the US government do anything to rescue Uyghurs or other captive peoples in China short of triggering a nuclear war.
Still, I wonder: Am I being a little bit too easy on myself? We all buy cheap electronic products from China, and there are enough plants producing kosher products across the vast expanse of that country to keep a legion of mashgichim busy. Sometimes it seems to me that all my businessmen friends have established factories in China. Do these commercial relations implicate us in Chinese policies, just as my mother would have felt implicated in the enslavement of her fellow Jews, if she had bought a Volkswagen, even long after the war was over?
BY ASKING THAT QUESTION, I do not wish to broadcast my exquisite sensitivity. Even were I to act upon that vague moral intuition in some way, it would cost me little. I'm not yet addicted to ordering from AliExpress; I do no business in China upon which I'm dependent to feed my family.
With respect to my question about whether business as usual with China implicates us morally in Chinese policies, I have no clear answer. Nor do I begin to know what a Jew should be willing to sacrifice on account of a moral intuition. What I do know is that as members of a people that has suffered more than any other from the apathy of the world, it is incumbent upon us to be at least willing to think about the question.
Getting to Know You
There is no place in the world where one is forced to interact with complete strangers over a prolonged period of time more than on a long airplane flight. But oftentimes that experience turns out to be far more rewarding than could have been anticipated.
On a recent flight between Chicago and Richmond, Virginia, my wife and I were assigned seats several rows apart. As I settled into my comfortable bulkhead seat, I informed the lady next to me that I doubted I'd be there long: The plan was for my wife to offer my aisle seat to whomever was sitting in the window seat next to her. But when I looked back, I saw my wife had been unable to sell that exchange. The young girl next to her could not be tempted with extra legroom or an aisle seat: She wanted her window.
When I shared this information with the woman next to me, she offered, without hesitation, to switch seats with my wife. Even when I pointed out to her that she would be moving to a seat with less legroom, she still insisted. I said to her, "You must be a romantic." Apparently, the notion had never occurred to her, but she then nodded and said, "Yes, I guess I am."
On another recent long flight from Ben-Gurion to San Francisco, I was assigned to a two-seat section at the very back of the plane, next to an Arab who was born in a village near Nazareth and who has been living for decades in Palm Springs, California. Our conversation did not get off to the best start when he started talking about an alleged massacre by Israeli forces in his village during the 1948 War of Independence.
About five hours into the flight, however, he turned to me and said, "I see you are having no success finding a position in which to sleep. You keep twisting and turning without managing to sleep more than a few minutes." Then he offered me his window seat so that I could rest my head against the side of the plane. And it worked.
Both these unsolicited acts of kindness by complete strangers with whom I was briefly thrown together left me with a warm glow that I can still summon up.