Jews and Tibet: How Should We Respond?


The Jewish people are involved in so many local, national and domestic issues that we are often accused of turning every subject into a “Jewish Dilemma.” A Jewish humorist once wrote an essay called “The Elephant and the Jewish Dilemma” to prove that we can always manage to find a “Jewish angle” in which to express our concern even on topics that seem to have no direct bearing on our people. On a more serious note, it is appropriate to ask, in the midst of the worldwide protests against China’s harsh crackdown on protesters in Tibet who seek independence, or at least greater cultural, religious and intellectual freedom: what is the appropriate Jewish response? We believe that the proper Jewish response is outrage at the Chinese regime for its crackdown on the Tibet dissidents and support for those who oppose China’s human rights abuses — including Tibet, the oppression of the Falun Gong and democratic dissidents — should be condemned.

Tibet was invaded and illegally occupied by China in 1951. Over the years, China drove the legitimate legal and spiritual leader of Tibet, the revered and respected Dalai Lama, from his homeland. The Chinese Communist regime defied international law with its invasion and forcible annexation of Tibet against its will, and for its systematic and relentless effort to destroy all vestiges of Tibetan culture. Despite the decades of oppression, the people of Tibet have managed to preserve their distinctive culture, religion and value system.

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Now that China is preparing to host the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, Chinese actions in Tibet and other human rights abuses and concerns have risen to the surface. The New York Times, in a report by Jim Yardley and Jake Hooker last week, states, “The issue of Tibet continues to create a domestic political crisis and an international public relations disaster for China. Tibet and other regions were rocked by anti-Chinese riots last month, and China is facing increasing criticism over its human rights record as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.” Indeed, as the Olympic Torch was carried through the streets of Paris, London and San Francisco last week, it was greeted with demonstrators who protested China’s crackdown in Tibet, and a smaller number of pro-Chinese demonstrators.

China’s occupation of Tibet is a legitimate subject of concern for all freedom-loving people, including the Jewish people. Over the centuries, Jews have also had their rights trampled, their religion and their culture suppressed by majority cultures. Since Israel became independent in 1948, its larger Arab neighbors repeatedly threatened its very existence, and thanks to Israel’s excellent military and the resolve of its people, it has been able to maintain its independence even as larger neighbors like Iran and Syria threaten to take it away.

The Beijing Olympics of 2008 have been compared to the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which were hosted by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. There are some similarities, but it would be unfair to state that the current regime in China, despite its many human rights abuses and suppression of Tibet, is even remotely as horrific as that of Nazi Germany.

At the same time, the Olympic Games are a legitimate forum to put pressure on China to lift its crackdown and grant greater freedom if not outright independence to Tibet, and to put additional pressure on the regime in Sudan, which China supports, to allow the peacekeeping force to stop the genocide in the Darfur region.

The Jewish community has not only the right, but the responsibility to speak out against China’s human rights abuses and in favor of the oppressed people of Tibet. Jewish values demand that we speak for those whose freedom is under assualt and who are being deprived of their rights. It is vital that we do so, for our community knows the horrors that can result from the silence of those who refuse to speak out and instead choose to allow injustice and brutality to occur.

In this season of Passover, when we celebrate the Freedom of the Jewish People from slavery, let us make every effort to help those still living in slavery or oppression to gain the freedom and dignity that they deserve. As our Sages teach us, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”