In the special prayer recited on Hanukkah, the liturgy recalls that the Syrian Greeks sought “to cause the Jews to forget Your Torah and to prevent them from keeping the precepts of Your will.” With that experience in mind, Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, calls on Jews and Gentiles in the West to take up the cause of the Uighurs—the Muslim ethnic group that populates northwestern China—who are facing Beijing’s attempt to do the same to their own faith and customs:
Can it be true that, in our modern, sophisticated world, men and women are still beaten if they refuse to renounce their faith? That women are forced to abort their unborn children and are then sterilized to prevent them from becoming pregnant again? That forced imprisonment, the separation of children from their parents and a culture of intimidation and fear have become the norm? Sadly, the weight of evidence of this persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority in China is overwhelming.
“Impossible” is a word I often heard while growing up in apartheid South Africa in the 60s and 70s. My father, a rabbi, would make pastoral visits to political prisoners held on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. My mother was the principal of the only training college for black nursery-school teachers in the country. For so long, any notion of positive change was rendered impossible by the impregnable power and ruthless determination of the apartheid authorities. And, yet, change did eventually come.
“Impossible” was the sad conclusion when, during my tenure as chief rabbi of Ireland in the 1980s, my wife and I were actively involved in the global campaign for Soviet Jewry. The oppression of so many Jews and others by the mighty Soviet Union seemed an insurmountable injustice. It appeared impossible that protesters around the world could change the fortunes of innocent men and women who were sent to labor camps for the sin of living as Jews. But change did eventually come.
The freedoms we enjoy, coupled with a perception that nothing we do will help, often create a culture of apathy. Time and again, history has taught us that it is precisely such apathy that permits hatred to flourish. The Talmud teaches that: “We are not expected to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”