Purim and the Muslim Uyghurs – what do they have in common?

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Traditionally, the festival of Purim involves reading from the Megillah, which details a biblical story of the intent to destroy the Jewish people, Jewish religion and Jewish culture. More importantly, it is also a story about individual dedication and heroism by young Queen Esther, and her intervention on behalf of her people.

The Megillah is a story of the past, but it is also a reflection of the present and the story of the persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in China, and equally a story of individual acts of heroism and collective acts of dedication by Uyghurs and their allies in the UK’s Jewish community.

It is almost two years to the day since I first met Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur artist and interpreter living in exile in London, from whom I heard first-hand about the experiences of the Uyghurs. What I heard resonated, for me, with the story of the Jewish people.

Rahima shared her personal story – for the last 18 years she has been unable to return to see her family due to speaking out against the human rights violations imposed on the Uyghurs by the Chinese government in East Turkistan (Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region) and the last time she has had any contact with her family back home was in 2017.
Rahima also spoke about the horrors that close to three million Uyghurs are currently suffering – mass internment; forced labour; sterilisation; forced removal of organs; obliteration of religious and cultural sites; out-lawing of language, culture, and religious practice – all too familiar stories.

She asked for René Cassin’s helps in publicising the plight of her people, and we did just that. We invited Rahima to address a public meeting on the issue in May 2019.

At that meeting, we pledged: “… to bear witness to what is happening, raise awareness among the Jewish community, and advocate for an end to China’s persecution of its minorities.”

Since making that pledge, we have worked across the Jewish community to raise awareness and offer opportunities for solidarity with Uyghurs by speaking out and calling for an end to their persecution by the Chinese government.

This quickly became another story of Jewish dedication, solidarity and action. By April 2020, Rahima was telling Jewish News of the “heart-warming, peaceful, and spiritual” support she was receiving from the Jewish community.

From there, momentum had steadily grown from the Board of Deputies using its reach to lobby government and Parliament to act; The Chief Rabbi announcing “I can no longer remain silent about the plight of the Uighurs” – a message echoed by many other community Rabbis and leaders; to our community’s youth and students who have used their platforms to raise awareness and share calls to action.

The unity of the Jewish community’s response and resolve cuts across all of its aspects – from our communal and spiritual leadership, our students and youth, and every member of the community that hears the story of the Uyghurs. It is not surprising that today, the UK’s Jewish community is the leading faith community campaigning to stop the Uyghur genocide. A modern day ‘Queen Esther’ devoted to ensuring justice to the Uyghur people.

There is still a lot we must do, not least to continue extending our solidarity and friendship with the Uyghur people and to continue campaigning and amplifying their calls for change. By doing this, as we read the Megillah and celebrate our freedom, we can each become the symbol of dedication and heroism symbolic to the story of Purim.

By Mia Hasenson-Gross