‘We Don’t Know Exactly How Far Down The Road China is’: Head of Jewish Group Fighting Genocide

Serena Oberstein discusses Jewish and Uyghur genocides and how to hold China to account.
2021-03-23
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‘We Don’t Know Exactly How Far Down The Road China is’: Head of Jewish Group Fighting Genocide Serena Oberstein in an undated photo.
Jewish World Watch

Serena Oberstein is the executive director of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a California-based organization that assists survivors of mass atrocities around the globe and seeks to unite people of various faiths and cultures in the fight against genocide. The group has primarily focused on providing service in the conflict areas of China, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Myanmar.

The JWW is planning to hold a Week of Action later this month on behalf of ethnic Uyghurs, who the U.S. said in January are being targeted by China as part of a state-backed genocide. Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have been held in a vast network of internment camps in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since early 2017. Reports also suggest that the ethnic group is being subjected to discrimination, torture, forced labor, state-ordered birth control including sterilization and abortion, and cultural eradication.

Oberstein recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service Director Alim Seytoff about the similarities between China’s policies of repression against the Uyghurs in the XUAR and those targeting the Jewish community in Germany ahead of the Holocaust, during which some six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. She also discussed ways that the international community can help to ensure that such a genocide never takes place again.

RFA: You're planning to hold a week of action on behalf of the Uyghurs later this month. What types of action are you planning?

Oberstein: Later this month, the Jewish people will celebrate Passover, which is the story, as many people know, of the [Jewish] exodus [from enslavement in Egypt]. It's a story of slavery to redemption, of people who were exiled and found their freedom. And so, for a number of reasons, not just because it resonates so deeply with the Jews, it's a universal story. It is a time when we talk about us being strangers in a strange land.

We're going to have three days of action. The first day will be a global seder (Passover dinner) … A number of Jewish and Uyghur leaders coming together to raise our collective voices to call for an end to the atrocities that are happening to the Uyghurs. The next day will be a day of global advocacy … and the third day is a day of business engagement. As I'm sure you know, more than 90 multinational corporations are unfortunately utilizing Uyghur slave labor … Four of these corporations actually have ties to the Holocaust, and so, again, it’s something that's deeply personal for the Jewish community on this day of business engagement. We intend to reach out to some of those companies that have these ties and talk to them about not repeating the same mistakes that they made more than 75 years ago.

You know, a conversation that I keep having recently is that we are in a moment right now that feels so similar to the moment right before the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The Beijing Olympics are approaching and people are saying broadly the things that they were saying right before the 1936 Olympics—“Look at the way that Germany is contributing to the world economy, the way that they’re cleaning up the streets,” or “they’re so innovative” … Germany was creating the systemic ways that they were “othering” and dehumanizing the Jewish people, but the ways that [the public was] willing to overlook putting all Jews into one neighborhood or interning them or setting up train stations, we hear the same things happening in [the XUAR] and we—the Jewish community, these human rights organizations, and the leaders of these other organizations—are coming together to raise our collective voices to say enough is enough, we have to pay attention. And making sure that never again isn't just an empty phrase, but a call to action.

RFA: The international community basically rewarded Nazi Germany in 1936 by granting Germany the right to host the Olympics at a time when Germany was already rounding up Jews and cracking down on them very harshly. But if the international community continues to do so today, what do you think will happen? What kind of message would the International Olympic Committee (IOC) be sending other authoritarian countries?

Oberstein: The IOC by now, again, should have learned its lesson. We can't just crack down on countries that don't play a role in the world economy … The purpose of the Olympics is to create an even playing field … Growing up, the message that I received about the Olympics was that it was about unity, unity and human rights and brotherhood and sisterhood. And by ignoring that there is an ethnic minority being … persecuted sends a message that that they’re willing to stand idly by. There’s a saying in Judaism that “silence is complicity” and Jewish World Watch holds that phrase and that idea very close that it’s not OK to witness something and then do nothing.

RFA: After the Holocaust, the United Nations was founded in 1948. It declared the Genocide Convention and also declared “never again will we allow such a thing like a Holocaust to happen again.” But so far, we have not seen a single word coming out of the mouth of the U.N. General Secretary António Guterres. Do you think he should publicly denounce China’s genocide of the Uyghurs and take a stand on this issue instead of keeping quiet?

Oberstein: Yes absolutely … We hear about people being taken in the night, disappeared, their heads shaved. We hear about the train stations and the systemic rape and people being interned and forced slave labor, we hear about China now disseminating companies around the country and shipping people to those to those companies. This is the infrastructure that was created in Germany leading up to the Holocaust.

Maybe no one is being mass murdered to the same degree, but we don't know that yet. Right? Information that's coming out of the region may be years old, so we don't know exactly how far down the road China is. And what we do know indicates exactly what Germany was doing to prepare for the Holocaust. So, if that's not enough information, I don't know what the U.N. needs in order to act. But I know Jewish World Watch sees what's happening and sees the writing on the wall, like many of these other Jewish human rights organizations, and we know that “never again” is right now.

RFA: Both the Trump and Biden administrations determined that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity, targeting the Uyghurs and other populations. And we also have seen the Canadian and the Dutch parliaments recognize that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs. What do you think the U.S. should do together with its Western allies, to stop China from completely exterminating the Uyghurs?

Oberstein: We have legislation that's open right now in Congress, which is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, so the first thing that we can do is pass that immediately. It's imperative that we take the first steps so that companies that are making money on the enslavement and persecution of the Uyghurs stop immediately.

In 2020, we passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, to protect Uyghurs living in this country from extradition and harassment. We need to hold true to that. We need to make sure that Uyghurs who have fled persecution are not persecuted. And I think we need to stand strong against the Chinese government and against the CCP. It's not enough to say that there are differences of culture … That's not a relationship that we need to hold on to. We need to stop it. We need to set boundaries. We need to sanction them and stop them from going any further.

Reported by Alim Seytoff for RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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