Why I Stayed
On Tuesday, Feb. 5, I attended a rally at the United Nations. The rally protested against the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people and was organized by YC alumnus and current semikha student Yosef Roth, as well as Corby Johnson and Fawzia Syed. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who live primarily in north-western China, and they practice Islam. Within the past half-decade, the Chinese government has worked extensively to strip the Uyghur people of their identity, severely curtailing their rights to practice their religion and interning close to one million people in “re-education camps.”
The speakers at the rally were a Uyghur expat student whose family is suffering, a Uyghur activist, a Holocaust survivor and faith leaders from Islam, Christianity and Judaism — including YU Mashgiach Rabbi Yosef Blau. The attendees at the rally were of a diverse population, including many visibly religious Muslims, and a contingent of students and faculty from YU.
The second speaker of the afternoon was Imam Suhaib Webb. A resident scholar at the Islamic Center at NYU, Imam Webb opened his speech with the anecdote that the Uyghur people last had autonomy in 1934. Imam Webb immediately pivoted and stated that the same year was close to when the Palestinian people lost their own independence. He continued to paint a grand narrative that all Muslims are oppressed, the white man always will try to keep down the brown man, and all Muslims and all People of Color must unite to protest all oppression against the white ruling class. He mentioned the Uyghurs a few times throughout his speech, but almost as often mentioned his other example, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Imam Webb’s speech was rude, disrespectful and counterproductive. He either did not appreciate that the central organizer is both a religious Jew and a Zionist, or he did not care. Likewise with the visible contingent of religious Jews standing in the small block of asphalt, and with one of his fellow speakers.
I personally was deeply offended by Imam Webb’s words. He did not seem to care what the cause of the rally even was, instead preferring to use this opportunity to preach what he thought was more important and relevant than the issue that brought people to that square in the first place.
However, I was also troubled by the response of a couple of my fellow YU students who attended the rally. Severely disagreeing with the imam’s words, two students left the rally during his speech and did not return. Though on a smaller scale and with less publicity, these students were guilty of the same essential error as the speaker: They coopted an event centered around the Uyghurs into whatever they cared about. Passionate Jews and Zionists, they refused to stand by while their people were being publicly bashed. On its own, that is an admirable trait. But in context it was a distraction, it was almost bait, and they took it. The Uyghurs’ plight wasn’t important enough to suck up our pride in Israel for six minutes, so it was okay to leave in protest.
Though I understand many in our community would agree with these students’ actions, I hope that we all can learn to feel comfortable and present in our pursuit of tov ve’yosher, even in profoundly uncomfortable spaces.
Imam Webb implicitly shouted that Jews aren’t welcome in any progressive activist spaces unless they renounce some of their core values. The students who left acted in accordance with his premise, standing proudly with Israel and leaving the rally and the Uyghurs alone. But how sad is this? Living in a Jewish society in the Land of Israel is one of the core tenets of our religion; caring for the poor and oppressed is another. Why should we let an outsider dictate to us that we can choose only one?
I remained at the rally because I cared about the Uyghur plight; showing up and holding a sign for the cameras was the least I could do. As an Orthodox Jew raised in the tradition of Yeshayahu, I felt immense pride in wearing my kippah while holding a sign echoing Vayikra 25’s exhortation to proclaim freedom throughout the land, standing next to a rosh yeshiva who altered his scheduled shiur to enable him and his students to attend the rally. And though I was extremely uncomfortable for that component of the speech, I thought just as my religion expected me to show up, it expected me to sit through those six minutes of discomfort.
Activism, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. This past week I attended a panel discussion devoted to the tension in the interface between The Women’s March and antisemitism. All of the panelists agreed that progressive causes — e.g. feminism, support for the working class, eradicating racism, sustainable environmental policies — are good and that antisemitism is bad. All were proud Jews, most were proud Zionists and thought that was entirely compatible with Social Justice, and they all acknowledged the deep tension that many progressive Jews feel in spaces where they are asked to check their identities at the door. None provided a complete answer to the problem, but one line from the discussion is particularly relevant here: Worry less about whom you are talking with than whom you are talking to. You might feel deeply about a cause, and someone else may agree with you on that cause, and you may feel equally deeply opposed to each other on another issue. Don’t ignore that disagreement, but at least be willing to temporarily put that on the back burner while you work for the common good.
The world of social justice activism is not the most hospitable for Jews. But that doesn’t change the fact that social justice is a core principle of Judaism. The danger in grand narratives is that those who disagree with components can get thrown out of the larger program; it is critical that we do not fall into this trap. And I very much appreciate the comments of Imam Khalid Latif, the Mulsim University Chaplain for NYU, who followed Imam Webb’s speech in calling all of us to hear the narrative of the other and to ensure that narrative is not erased. I do not know if it was an intentional rebuke to Imam Webb, but it certainly argued against Imam Webb’s narrow-minded and divisive comments.
So I am immensely grateful to Yosef for his effort in putting this event together, and I hope our small presence across the US Mission to the UN makes an impact, however small, in the lives of the Uyghur people. And I am proud of the bulk of my peers who stayed through the whole rally in solidarity with the Muslims from 6,500 miles away. Because it is better to seethe in silence for six minutes than to skip out on the full hour.
Photo Caption: The Uyghur Rally at the United Nations Headquarters
Photo Credit: Jonathan Becker