Elie Wiesel Foundation hosts conference on Uyghur genocide to bring Jewish ‘community into this fight’

Gathering comes after the organization issued its first-ever grants to organizations combating China's treatment of the Muslim Uyghur community

From an early age, Elisha Wiesel watched how his father approached “living Jewish values on the world stage whenever they’re needed,” he recalled in an interview this week with eJewishPhilanthropy

So when Wiesel became chairman of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity two years ago, he felt it crucial that the best way to honor the memory of his father, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate and writer, would be for the foundation to devote itself to a crisis half a world away from Auschwitz — advocating for the Muslim Uyghur community in China. 

Beginning on Wednesday, the foundation, in collaboration with World Uyghur Congress and several other groups, is slated to hold a two-day event called “Disrupting Uyghur Genocide Conference” at the 92 Street Y in New York, with the goal of bringing awareness to the largest mass detention based on ethnic and religious identity since World War II, while also calling for immediate international action. The conference is the largest-ever interfaith gathering of its kind, and first to be run with a Jewish organization, according to Wiesel, who told eJP that the “intent is to bring members of the community into this fight.” 

“The reason that I was inspired, and that we as a board were inspired, to tackle the Uyghur question is that right now the biggest bully on the planet is the Chinese Communist Party,” Wiesel told eJP ahead of the conference.” They are the ones who in an industrialized fashion, supported by technology and the bureaucracy of [the] state, are pursuing the persecution of the Uyghur people,” who are mostly Muslim.

Ahead of the conference, the partnership kicked off on Tuesday night with a VIP reception “Made in China” art exhibition in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, featuring installations that spotlight the human cost of sundry goods that have ties to human rights abuses happening in the Xinjiang province of western China — formally known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region — and call out organizations like Tesla, Nike and Apple that have yet to cease their exploitation of Uyghur forced labor. 

Wiesel said that planning the event “brought a lot back to me of thinking about my father, who in the 1950s and ’60s traveled to the Soviet Union and learned about the Soviet Jewry movement and learned about their needs.”

“He wasn’t afraid at all to pick a fight with the Soviet Union, which at the time was the biggest bully on the planet from a human rights perspective,” Wiesel recalled of his father, who died in 2016. 

The U.S. State Department estimates more than 1 million civilians have been arbitrarily imprisoned in the Xinjiang province since at least 2017 while China is committing crimes against humanity against Muslim Uyghurs in an effort to create a single-ethnic state. The State Department describes the crimes as arbitrary imprisonment and torture, forced sterilization, forced labor and restrictions on freedom of religion and expression.

In July, the foundation, which was founded in 1986, announced the first beneficiaries of its inaugural grant-making cycle, selected based on their commitment to advocating for the Uyghur community. The grantees in Uyghur advocacy included the World Uyghur Congress, Uyghur Human Rights Project, World Jewish Watch and Ana Care & Education. 

In addition to Wiesel, several notable leaders across the Uyghur, Jewish, Muslim and political realms are expected to participate in the conference, including Dolkun Isa, president of World Uyghur Congress; Eric Dinowitz, New York City Councilmember; Laura Murphy, policy adviser on the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act at the Department of Homeland Security; Nury Turkel, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and author of No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs; and Mihrigul Tursun, Uyghur camp survivor. 

Among the topics expected to be covered at the conference are how social media, particularly TikTok, influences the CCP’s agenda to control information and how to preserve Uyghur cultural identity and learn from the Jewish Diaspora experience.

Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, one of the event’s partners, told eJP that the partnership with the Elie Wiesel Foundation “has a profound meaning.”

“Elie Wiesel, a global humanitarian, is an inspiration to all of us. Seven years into the slow genocide of the Uyghurs, just when it feels that headlines are fading, it is a godsend for the Elie Wiesel Foundation to launch a new grantmaking program, and help make it possible for Uyghur groups to carry on our struggle to end the atrocities,” Kanat continued. 

Isa said in a statement that the conference “comes at a time where Uyghurs need international solidarity more than ever. This is a gathering of individuals from different backgrounds who are coming together for two days to find tangible and realistic solutions to end the Uyghur genocide. This is what genuine solidarity looks like.” 

Wiesel noted that while he’s hopeful the conference will “bring together thinkers and in particular interfaith voices” and “start this conversation in the U.S.,” he believes that there are two significant reasons why the organizers are facing an uphill battle. 

“The CCP has been successful at pursuing an information lockdown,” he said. “When there’s nobody to interview, and you don’t have pictures or many stories, you don’t get press. They’ve created an information barrier there in terms of what comes in and out. In general, if you look at their control of social media, we have evidence that through TikTok, topics like Hong Kong, Tibet and Uyghur persecution are very much suppressed. That’s a lot of the discussion happening here in the U.S., as to what to do with TikTok and its foreign ownership.” 

“The second reason,” Wiesel continued, “is that it’s very easy to get celebrities to speak up for Darfur or Sudan, because they’re not making their next movie in Darfur or Sudan. They’re not going to sell their next million pairs of sneakers in Darfur or Sudan, it’s China. China is a huge market for American goods. It’s hard to get celebrities on board when their dollars are at risk.”

He added that Congress supporting the Uyghur Forced Labor Act, in a 428-1 vote, “gives me hope that if we can get the American consumer population to understand this a little bit better. We might be able to move the needle.” 

“In Congress, everybody understands why it’s important to fight it,” Wiesel said. 

In the Jewish community, it’s been particularly hard to bring focus to the Uyghur cause recently, as attention is on rebuilding Israel after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. 

The conference was originally scheduled for November but Wiesel said the planners “realized that coming so quickly after Oct. 7, there was no way we were going to get anybody there.”

Six months later, he said that “people can have multiple focal points in their mind at one time. This is worthy of the focus because it is the largest state-sponsored persecution of a people that is going on in real time and it affects the goods that we’re buying.” 

While there isn’t evidence that pressure on China by outside groups has been effective in improving their human rights practices, in a July interview Wiesel told eJP that “we can only hope that people in China will hear the messages that their government has gone too far and will one day use their influence for better treatment of the Uyghurs.” 

He continued, “As my father said in his 1986 Nobel acceptance speech, [referring to victims of human rights abuses everywhere,] ‘What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone.’”