YU Students Attend Rally to Protest Chinese Internment of Uyghurs
Approximately 20 YU undergraduates and alumni attended the Uyghur Rally: Call to Action on Tuesday, Feb. 5 across the street from the United Nations Headquarters to protest China’s Xinjiang re-education camps and their detainment of Uyghurs and Muslims.
The rally was organized by Yosef Roth (YC ‘16, RIETS ‘20), a current Yeshiva University semikha student who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Computational Biology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, as well as several other organizers. Over 150 people attended the rally, which took place from 12:00 to 12:50 p.m, concurrent with a similar protest that took place in Washington D.C.
It is estimated that up to one million Muslims, or about seven percent of the Muslim population, are currently being confined in the Xinjiang “political” re-education camps. Many experts suspect that China is detaining these individuals in an attempt to counter a perceived threat of extremism from certain ethnic minorities. Former inmates of the camps have attested to torture, humiliation and forced propaganda. Some claim to have been bound to chairs and served inadequate amounts of food.
The purpose of the rally, according to Roth, was to encourage the U.S. Department of State to address the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, a recently proposed bill in the U.S. Congress. The bill recommends that the State Department investigate the Xinjiang camps and, if China is found guilty of human rights violations, to initiate trade sanctions against certain Chinese officials. Similar tactics have been used in the past, for example, with the Global Magnitsky Act of 2012 which sanctioned Russian officials who were allegedly involved in human rights violations.
Activism on the part of Yeshiva University students to protest human rights violations is not a new phenomenon. Commentator archives report how, in Oct. 1968, several students staged a protest against the YU administration for not openly condemning acts of genocide that were being inflicted upon the Biafran people. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who was a YU rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at the time, arranged for some of his students to wake up early, daven at sunrise and have an early shiur, after which he accompanied them to a protest about the Biafra situation, which took place at the Isaiah Wall near the United Nations Headquarters.
Attendees from Yeshiva University at the recent Uyghur Rally included both men and women from the Wilf and Beren campuses. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a YU rosh yeshiva, scheduled for an early shiur to take place early on the morning of the rally, so that students would be able to attend. “As a follower of a religion that believes in rights for peoples of all religions, and as a citizen of a country whose foundational principles include freedom to practice religion without discrimination, supporting the Uyghurs in their plight is a no-brainer,” said Reuven Herzog (YC ‘19). “I am grateful to the work that Yosef and his fellow organizers put in; I did the super easy part of showing up.”
Several keynote speakers, all from different religions and backgrounds, spoke at the Uyghur Rally about why they felt it was important to condemn the re-education camps. Yosef Roth served as master of ceremonies. He opened up the rally by stating, “It’s hard to fathom the scale of this atrocity. This issue crosses all political, cultural and religious divides.” He then introduced the first speaker, Arfat Aeriken, a U.S. student whose family members are currently imprisoned in Xinjiang. Arfat spoke about how he had kept silent when they took his friends' parents captive. But now that his parents are in the detainment camps, he felt that he had no choice but to speak up.
The second speaker, Imam Suhaib Webb from the Islamic Center at New York University, explicitly associated the Uyghur issue to Palestinian oppression, at which point one YU student yelled out, “stop spreading hate,” and at least two students from the YU contingency left. After Webb’s speech, Yosef Roth reminded the other speakers to keep the event focused on the specific Chinese oppression in Xinjiang.
Other speakers included Imam Khalid Latif, the Executive Director for the Islamic Center at NYU, Rushan Abbas, an Uyghur activist whose sister is currently imprisoned in Xinjiang, Rabbi Yosef Blau, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, Reverend Brian McWeeney, the head of interreligious and ecumenical affairs for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Sami Steigmann, a Holocaust survivor.
“Tragically, human history is filled with stories of human oppression,” said Rabbi Blau, who spoke last at the rally. “It is necessary for the rest of the world, and particularly the United States of America as a powerful country, to stand up to China,” he told the crowd. “We believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. Hopefully this [protest] will make a dent and change the narrative of history,” Rabbi Blau added. Roth then concluded the rally by encouraging the attendees to reach out to their representatives to help make a difference.
“For Jewish people who hope to create a world where everyone is in service of God,” explained Roth when asked about his motivations for organizing the rally, “it is important to defend those who worship God against those who would prevent them. As God-fearing people, we need to protest this enormous attack on human rights.”
The Uyghur rally concluded with the crowd chanting, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
Photo Caption: The Uyghur Rally by the United Nations Headquarters
Photo Credit: Jonathan Becker