An issue often needs ‘a moment’ to really grab our attention. Think of three-year old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, or the knee on the neck of George Floyd. It’s not that we didn’t know about the refugee wave, or racism in the US police, it’s just that slow-burn human tragedy – whether from war or wrongdoing – often needs ‘a moment’ to make us sit up and think.
News of – and reaction to – the interception of an illicit shipment of human hair from China may be that moment for the persecuted Uyghur minority, at least as far as the Jewish community is concerned.
US Customs officers found 13 tons of human hair in the form of products and weaves aboard a US-bound Chinese ship last week.
The parallels with 20th century Jewish history are horrific.
But this is not the first parallel, as Jewish leaders in the UK have increasingly learned.
What started as a Chinese government crackdown on suspected Islamic terrorists in the Xinjiang province has turned into this century’s most abhorrent example of collective punishment, details of which have slowly emerged in the last two or three years.
First, satellite imagery revealed 1,200 huge new camps springing up out of nowhere – enough to house 1.8 million Uyghurs, say activists. The largest of them houses 140,000.
Their existence was first denied by officials, until that became untenable. It is for their own good, Beijing then said. It is forced detention, forced labour, slavery, indoctrination and repression through mass surveillance and persecution, replied activists.
Our Front Page: On how the seizure of 13 tonnes of human hair forcibly removed from China’s Uyghur Muslims carries chilling echoes of the past. @Rene_Cassin @amcarmichaelMP @JCOREUK@BoardofDeputies @richferrer@CohenJust @EdwinShuker@MaajidNawaz @UyghurCongress pic.twitter.com/qWsUvYVYoI
— Jewish News (@JewishNewsUK) July 16, 2020
Huge camps? Forced labour? Hair shorn then sold? That this touches such a raw nerve should surprise nobody.
Yes, this is China we’re talking about, but be that as it may, we are certainly not powerless in this fight.
We can lobby our MPs to press the government to hold China to account, or support international organisations working to shine a light on a region and practice that Chinese authorities would no doubt prefer to keep hidden in darkness.
Why would we do this, when the world is so convulsed by coronavirus and racial divisions and all manner of other things to worry about?
Because we know where this kind of thing leads.