Each of the Four Cups was raised to symbolize Uyghur’s captivity and hoped-for deliverance.
by Ruth Ingram
First, they told the Uyghur men they could not wear beards
And I did not speak out, because I was too busy to listen.
And then they put the Uyghurs in slave labor,
And I did not speak out, because I wasn’t sure who Uyghurs were.
And then they took the Uyghur women to camps and abused them,
And I did not speak out because they seemed so far away.
And then the Uyghurs began to be disappeared,
And I awoke!
And realized I had been unfaithful to the words
Echoing the poem written by Martin Niemöller after the Second World War, Jews stood shoulder to shoulder this week with Uyghurs as they celebrated their own liberation from Egyptian slavery more than 3000 years ago.
On day four of their week-long Passover celebration, Jews from around the world held a unique Passover Seder using the Exodus story to mirror not only their own struggle for freedom but also the captivity of Uyghurs in their homeland. Eminent Jews, including former Canadian MP and lawyer Irwin Cotler, Rabbis, Jewish activists, and Holocaust survivors gathered online to renew their determination to seek liberty and justice for all people, and to declare “This year we are slaves. Next year may we all be free.”
Drawing on the elements of a traditional Jewish Seder, a candle was lit to symbolize a prayer for strength to bring the light of God into the darkness of the Uyghur genocide. “As we kindle these lights, we reach for one another’s hands, recognizing our shared humanity and your Divine spark which is in each of us, inspiring us to seek dignity and justice for all humankind,” prayed Uyghur Nuri Turkel, a commissioner in the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Ceremonial washing, using both traditional Jewish and Uyghur pitchers, symbolized life-giving water for all those seeking refuge from conflict around the world.
Drawing symbolism from the four cups of blessing central to a Seder, the first this year came with an exhortation to respond to Uyghur suffering. “For too long the plight of the Uyghur people has remained in the dark. Now, at last, light is being cast on their plight, and we have been awakened to their suffering. We cannot but respond,” prayed Dr. Margaret Jacobi, rabbi of the UK’s Birmingham Progressive Synagogue.
The second cup was raised by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism, UK, to symbolize the movement from slavery to freedom. “As Jews, we are commanded not just to recall the suffering and oppression of the Hebrew people in Egypt, but to feel the anguish as if it were happening to us at this moment. Today, we bear witness to the servitude and the despair of our Uyghur brothers and sisters. Their anguish is also ours. We cannot rest while they are still oppressed. We need to ask questions. We need the help of all our generations, children and parents, young and old, peoples of all religions, to work together to move forward the Uyghur people back to freedom,” he urged.
The third cup represents the movement from silence to protest. Jews are required to spill a little out of the cup before drinking. “How can our cups be full when the world has such suffering in it?” they ask. “How can we feel like we have enough when some have so little? Our diminished cups remind us that, until all are free, there is emptiness in our hearts and in our lives.” “We cannot stand idly by. We cannot be silent. We must bear witness to the current genocide of the Uyghur people, and take concrete action to bring it to an end.”
And with the final cup, gathered Jews reiterated their determination to strive for Uyghur justice. US-based Dr Alfred Munzer, himself rescued as a nine-month-old baby from the Holocaust by an Indonesian family in Holland, expressed his gratitude for all those who struggle so that others can be free. “May our actions in this year sustain the hope and move the Uyghur people closer to freedom,” he prayed. “We pray for the glorious day when all those who yearn for the good, and for the freedom of all of the world’s people, will prevail.”
In a traditional Seder, Jews recite Dayenu, “It would be enough,” in gratitude for each of the actions that brought the Hebrews from slavery to freedom.
Listening and knowing are not enough, they were reminded. “We have heard about the Uyghur acts of resistance—the next steps must be ours—to learn, to care, to advocate, to raise our voices in protest until it is enough. We gather here together in solidarity, but recognize that this alone will not be enough.”
An empty chair is left for the Seder guest who cannot be there, a poignant reminder of the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs still interned or sentenced illegally to draconian prison terms, and the exiles who drown in sorrow for all those dear to them who are missing. A door is left open for the Prophet Elijah to return to announce a time of peace.
“Our action is optimistic, even when he fails to appear,” they say. “When will a better world come? We don’t know, but it is in our power to fix the broken places and hasten Elijah’s arrival.”
Echoing the Sinai wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews, and the Uyghur caravans who plied their own vast Taklamakan Desert for centuries, Rahima Mahmut, UK Director of the World Uyghur Congress concluded with a deeply moving rendering of “Footprint,” by renowned Uyghur poet, Abdurehim Ötkürm whose narrative depicts the Uyghur struggle but retains a seed of hope that future generations would rediscover the age-old footprints in the sand.
We were young, we were young when the journey began,
Now we are claimed by time, which passes, which passes.
Leaving us with grandchildren who are old enough to ride the horses of our race,
Our numbers have grown from the few
Who started as fledglings in this grace of time passing;
Now we are a multitude whose name is the “Great Caravans,”
Whose footprints bruised the sands of the great desert.
Footprints hidden in the wilderness, shaded in the valleys,
There were many heroes, brave as hungry lions left behind
In the tawny wilderness of deserts open to the eye of the sun.
They were not abandoned in the desert and among the red tamarisks; Surely flowers would have embraced their remains embroidering graves.
Time passes, but the wind and stinging grains
Of sand can never erase our footprints, not ever, not ever.
Our horses, like ourselves grow old and frail,
But we remain and our journey will not stop
Our children and grandchildren will discover the signs of our beginnings
The footprints that write our history, mark our journey.
The evening was not simply about sadness, stressed Mia Hasenson-Gross, Executive Director of René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights in the UK. It was about celebrating friendship and the shared significance that Jewish and Uyghur cultures, traditions, religions and even food define who they are and bind them together.
“Let us celebrate the light that shines through our friendship and each use our darkness to motivate us to create a different future,” she said. “Next year may we all live in freedom in our homes and homelands.”