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Saving Tibet

When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to the public 26 years ago, the very first visitor was the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Buddhist leader prayed for the millions killed in the Holocaust and decried the “evil” that led to their destruction. That first visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum was not the last for the charismatic leader, who has continued to promote interfaith dialogue, all while he has led his exiled people in a fitful and, so far, unrequited quest to ensure that their religion, culture, language and identity are not extinguished by the Chinese government.

Now it is our time to return the gesture.

March 10 marked the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, which caused the Dalai Lama to flee over the Himalaya Mountains to Dharamsala, India, with 80,000 Tibetans following him. There, while the Chinese government imposed military rule on his homeland, executing thousands of Tibetans, imprisoning many more and destroying ancient and sacred monasteries, he set up a government in exile. No doubt he thought it would be temporary. Fifty years later, he still reigns from afar.

Conditions in what is now known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region have deteriorated so badly that the country is, in the Dalai Lama’s words, a “hell on earth.” Afraid of a repeat of the unrest that occurred on last year’s anniversary, the Chinese have imposed an unofficial state of martial law, with soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets, cell-phone and Internet services largely cut off, and monks ordered to stay within their monasteries.

Unfortunately, it seems, the Chinese can continue this repression with impunity. Activists on behalf of Tibet staged multiple protests last year as the Olympic torch wound its way toward Beijing, and a few stalwart, celebrity allies — Prince Charles, for one — appeared to boycott the Games. But their rallying cries fell on deaf ears.

Although the Chinese accuse the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatist violence, he has, in fact, long asked only for Tibet to be granted autonomy within China. Hopes ran high late last summer when delicate talks resumed between envoys from China and Tibet, but that budding conversation soon fell apart, and by the harsh, defiant tone of the Dalai Lama’s latest remarks, he’s in no mood for grand gestures. He may well be placating the more radical people within his community, who have lost patience with his strict policy of nonviolence. If so, shame on the Chinese who refuse to recognize that his moderate views and worldwide stature make him the best negotiating partner they could find right now.

Jews know a thing or two about exile, and the desire to keep alive one’s culture, religion and language. Jews also know all too well that two people can lay fervent claim to the same land, and that sorting through those claims requires tenacity, creativity and compromise. That is why the Jewish community should press the new Obama administration to be more forthright in demanding that China grasp the opportunity to find a peaceful end to a state of repression that has lasted far too long.

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