What British Jews living in Hong Kong are saying about the protests

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What British Jews living in Hong Kong are saying about the protests

'As a Jewish person, I believe in taking a stand,' one person said

Protesters on  August 18, 2019. (Credit: Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0, www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Protesters on August 18, 2019. (Credit: Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0, www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

As Hong Kong’s anti-government protests show no sign of stopping, here is what British Jews living in the city are saying about the unrest.

Protesters have been gathering several times a week to fight against what they perceive to be Chinese attempts to curtail their freedoms, with one demonstration drawing an estimated 2 million protesters in a population of 7.3 million.

According to reports, police have occasionally responded violently, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.

Hong Kong is home to some 5,000 Jews, seven congregations – Orthodox, Chabad and progressive – a Jewish community centre, school and a Holocaust centre.

But none of the organisations are located in the areas where protests are happening and business is operating largely as usual. For most members of the community, life has gone on without much change.

“That’s the crazy thing about the situation, there is a revolution taking place but actually our lives have continued as normal,” said Ben Freeman, a Glasgow native who has been living in Hong Kong for the past two years.

“I went for Shabbat dinner on Friday night at a friend’s house and of course we talk about it, but nothing at the moment — and this is the privilege: Nothing is happening to expats, so there is definitely a feeling of safety,” Freeman, who works as a teacher at an international school, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

For Freeman, safety concerns trump other factors. “We’re staying away because it’s not necessarily safe,” he said. “To be quite honest, I’d be very nervous to go down to a protest.”

But some community members have chosen to get involved. Londoner Nicole Izsak attended some 15 protests this summer prior to moving to New York a month ago for her husband’s job.

Most were peaceful, but a few times she clashed with police. On June 12, Izsak was with a large group of protesters when police started approaching them with batons and tear gas. The crowd was pushed onto a small footbridge, where Izsak feared she could be crushed by the large mass of people.

“I need to get out of here,” she recalled thinking.

But the experience didn’t deter Izsak, who lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, from participating again in the protests.

“We benefited from the freedoms of speech, of assembly [and] of privilege of living there and we should give back to the community that gave us so much,” she said.

Izsak, who has worked for Hong Kong’s Jewish school, Jewish women’s association and the Jewish film festival, says her Jewish identity also played a role in her participation.

“As a Jewish person as well, I believe in taking a stand,” she said.

Izsak has heard a range of reasons why Jews in Hong Kong prefer to stay out of politics.

“I think it varies between disinterest, feeling it’s not their issue, feeling they don’t have the right to do it, feeling that Jews should keep their heads below the parapet, not supporting the demonstrations,” she said.

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