Yosef Roth is a Jew who thinks that as a Jewish believer he must try to relieve the sorrow of oppressed Muslims. He founded “Uyghur Rally” with Corby Johnson.
When it comes to persecution by atheistic bigotry, sometimes the worst enemy of a religious group is a group of a different religious persuasion. Sad but true, rivalries and in-fights produce more often than not short circuits, treason, complicity with the executioner, all ending inevitably with severe suffering of the innocent. It is morally awful, and it is also strategically short-sighted, given that the immortal words and concepts by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) in his famous poetry have taken and are taking new meaning and life every day in today’s China.
On the other end, we at Bitter Winter experience daily a small but strong consolation when we witness the reality, as partial as it may be, of a little haven, witnessing the sincere collaboration of people belonging to different religious groups, and even atheists, who help one another, testifying for one another, fighting side by side the same battle for truth and justice. Pope Francis, a moral authority not just for Roman Catholics, has often spoken of an “ecumenism forged in blood,” meaning the concrete, real brotherhood that arises spontaneously among people who share the same fate of sorrow, harassment, torture, and even death. There is no better phrase to describe what our collective work at Bitter Winter, acknowledged by many, has brought and is bringing about, given that, of course, the blood of the martyrs needs not to be always physically shed. It is enough if it is made gratuitously available.
But the best is yet to come, as some other, important facts prove.
In London, Great Britain, Jews have recently stood publicly, raising their voices against the cultural and ethnic genocide that is smashing another ethnic and religious group. A very different one. The Uyghur Muslims. Jews have famously experienced the tragedy of ethnic cleansing during the Shoah, but these London Jews don’t keep their sorrow and indignation jealously just for themselves, as if they were the only one allowed to suffer or as if their suffering was of a quality superior to that of others. Quite the opposite, while they perfectly know that every genocide is unique in itself, they can’t resign to let the world burn, dooming others to destruction. Our readers will certainly appreciate the intensity of this passionate dedication. Jews defending Muslims: it doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, it is the clear sign of a new day.
A tale of two Roths, and more bravery
I felt the same chill when I recently spoke on the phone with Mr. Yosef Roth. He is just a couple of spelling details away from the sublime Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the minstrel of the dying Habsburg empire. He was enamored with that Roman Catholic empire’s capacity to keep together, as a father, many different peoples, religions, and cultures like a family. Another prominent Austrian Jew, Dr. Thomas Chaimowicz (1924-2002), a refined philosopher of law, now buried in Aigen Cemetery, Salzburg, Austria, used to pray, wearing his kippah, alongside his Roman Catholic wife, for the Roman Catholic Habsburg empire because, he said, it did protect the Jews.
Our Yosef Roth is instead an American national and lives in New York City. He is similarly altogether convinced that Jews must protect other tormented religions from persecution. What is amazing once again is that all the historical tensions between the two groups notwithstanding, not to mention their vast theological differences, the people that Roth defends publicly are the Uyghurs, and their religion is of course Islam.
This is the first astonishment in this story. The second amazing thing is that Mr. Roth’s attitude doesn’t amount to a superficial, fashionable, even silly embrassons-nous, but from a deep conviction that his faith, Judaism, is true and not to be confused with others. Just like what the Uyghur Muslims think of their Muslim faith. Mr. Roth says that fighting for the right of Uyghur believers is part of what it means to be a true believer in Judaism. “As a God-fearing person myself,” he says, “I believe we must fight for the freedom to worship God.”
Mr. Roth is very young. A graduate student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York (now Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai), he is a rabbinical student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary also in the Big Apple. To help people of a different faith to fight against oppression and injustice, at the end of last year, he created a group called Uyghur Rally.
Ms. Corby Johnson, originally from Seattle, Oregon, is his partner in this adventure and the co-founder of the group. She knows the ground pretty well. She spent much of the last four years in Central Asia. Having learned to speak Russian fluently, she worked as a Russian-English translator in Kyrgyzstan for a large sporting event, a university, and then for a travel agency. She is currently pursuing her MA at the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, a university in New York.
A tale of two US agencies, and less courage
“Why people like Yosef and I are interested in Uyghur rights,” Ms. Johnson tells Bitter Winter, “even though we are not Uyghur ourselves? The ill fate facing the Uyghurs is a huge issue that has received media attention, but little has happened in the way of action. The scale of what’s happening in Xinjiang makes it so that no one can ignore this injustice. It may also feel like whatever is happening in China is so far away from us as Americans that it doesn’t matter, but that’s also not true. American companies have partnered with China to invest in these technologies, which means that the internment camps in China have close ties with us here at home. It’s not too far away to care about. This also means that when it comes to ending camps in China, Americans can start right here at home.”
Uyghur Rally organized its first event outside the US Mission to the UN in New York on February 5. “It was quite frustrating for us,” explains Ms. Johnson, “to see this issue in the media, and then not see anything happen to address it. Again, millions of people in internment camps is not a small thing that’s happening, and it’s frustrating when no one is willing to do anything. So, we decided to do something ourselves.”
On May 3, Uyghur Rally held a second public event in Washington, D.C., specifically designed to encourage American policy officials to combat the Uyghur oppression through targeted sanctions, alongside the same line suggested by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Alas, the bravery that animates the CECC is blocked by the US Department of the Treasury.
Why is the US Department of the Treasury in charge of the matter? Because an executive order of the US President of December 20, 2017, delegates the US power of targeted sanctions to the US Department of the Treasury. And why is the US Department of the Treasury blocking the US targeted sanctions the CECC is devising and proposing, especially against the Communist authorities ruling Xinjiang? Because the idea of targeted sanctions has been superseded by trade talks. Follow the money, as usual. This is why we need people like Mr. Yosef Roth and Ms. Corby Johnson and their associates and supporters to speak out for in favor of the repressed through their Uyghur Rally. You don’t have to be Uyghur.