Cry Out for the Fate of the Tibetan People

Opinion

By Rodger Kamenetz

Published March 20, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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Next month at Seder, we will recall how Egypt made the lives of the Children of Israel “bitter.” We will remember how “the children of Israel groaned… and cried out” and that “God heard their moaning.”

But this week we heard the groaning of the Tibetan people.

The Tibetans have no Seder, but they commemorate their history of oppression every year by remembering March 10. On that date in 1959, more than 100,000 Tibetans spontaneously demonstrated to protect the Dalai Lama from a death threat. He barely escaped the capital of Lhasa with his life, and in the uprising that followed it is believed that more than 10,000 Tibetans died.

Every year since, Tibetans remember March 10 with mostly peaceful demonstrations. This year in Lhasa was no different, until riots broke out and furious young Tibetans burned shops and murdered ethnic Han Chinese shopkeepers.

What happened that drove the Tibetan people to violence?

Theirs is a tragic history of cultural genocide. First the Chinese came with troops in 1949. Later they shelled the ancient Buddhist monasteries, which they’ve more recently rebuilt to serve as tourist traps.

Today’s Tibetan monks are tightly controlled and humiliated Ρ they must publicly disavow the Dalai Lama, which is like asking rabbis to renounce the Torah. The government has reached deep into the religious life of Tibet with clumsy hands, yet somehow the old religion of Tibet still lives.

Along with cultural destruction has come a massive influx of Han Chinese immigrants, who now far outnumber native Tibetans in Lhasa. The political and economic systems favor the immigrants, and Chinese rule has made the lives of today’s young Tibetans bitter.

Every people, if their groaning is never heard, has a breaking point, and this past week’s dramatic outburst of violence should be put in the context of 50 years of patient nonviolence.

From his home in exile in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama has loudly and clearly condemned the violence. But he has no power at this point to control it.

The Chinese know this very well, but to cover up the harshness of their treatment of Tibetans they have trotted out the tired old propaganda of a “Dalai clique” fomenting an uprising. The fact is that the anger that has spilled over in Lhasa is a heartfelt response by a genuine popular movement — and it is spreading to neighboring provinces, where more than three-fourths of ethnic Tibetans now live.

The Dalai Lama is not behind the violence, he grieves over it, for he knows as a Buddhist that it only begets more violence — and that chapter is now unfolding.

The Chinese government has shut down the phone lines and Internet connections in Tibet, shut out the press and expelled tourists. Now the army has moved in.

What happens next — the roundup of civilians, the imprisonments, the killings — will take place in the dark. When the lights come back on, just as after Tiananmen Square, the victims will be out of sight, killed or hidden away in dank prisons.

As Jews we know in our bones how it feels to be oppressed and murdered while the whole world stands silent — and we ought to cry out for the fate of the Tibetan people.

In 1997, the Dalai Lama and I sat together over matzo with Rabbi David Saperstein and a table full of Washington dignitaries for a Passover “Seder for Tibet.” We shared the great promise of the Seder — that someday all people will be liberated from oppression. We heard the four questions and wept at the unforgettable voices of teenage Tibetan nuns singing of freedom, in a recording smuggled out of the dreadful Drapchi Prison.

We concluded the Seder in solidarity: “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in Lhasa!”

For decades, the Dalai Lama has maintained his religious ideals while struggling to negotiate with the Chinese superpower. It’s hard not to think of Moses negotiating with Pharaoh.

As I listened to him recently on the news, pleading with his own people for an end to their violence, I felt how poignant and difficult his position is: The world praises him, but has given him no usable power.

The groaning of the Tibetans is not heard. It feels as if his dream is broken.

Our “Seder for Tibet” in 1997 was a Seder of hope — hope that the Dalai Lama’s inspiring message of nonviolence would be heard, that just this once another miracle would happen. I thought back then we did it for the Tibetans. I think now we did it also for us, because our hope for Tibetan freedom resonates deeply with our own deepest hopes.

The liberation from Egyptian bondage was not a Jewish military operation or armed resistance struggle. It was a demonstration of divine grace.

One midrash tells us that God liberated us by miracle, so our people would not learn to rely on the way of the fist. Another teaches universal compassion. When the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the angels rejoiced, but God rebuked them: “My children are drowning, and you sing?”

These beautiful stories and their like have shaped our Jewish souls. We share with Tibetans an ideal of human compassion that bonds us to the Dalai Lama’s religion of kindness. Over the past 50 years, however, Jewish history seems to have taught a very different lesson.

The State of Israel was born not long before the invasion of Tibet. For many years now our trust has been in military power for Israel, and in personal aggression for ourselves that we praise as chutzpah. But as the Dalai Lama implicitly asked those of us who traveled to Dharamsala in 1990 for Jewish-Tibetan dialogue, what happens if a people survives but loses its ideals?

There is no easy answer to that very Buddhist question. Nor to the very Jewish one we asked him in reply: What happens to the ideals if the people fail to survive?

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of “The Jew in the Lotus” (HarperOne, 1995) and “The History of Last Night’s Dream” (HarperOne, 2007).


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