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A Story We Know Only Too Well

October 28, 2009 – 12:19 pm19 Comments


By Keren Tuch

As I sat sipping chai in a tea shop in the Indian town of McCleod Ganj, home to the Tibetan government in exile, I contemplated how it came to be that I could be so ignorant of the details of most conflicts in the world except the one which is closest to home, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We Jews can often be so absorbed by our own struggles and history that we tend to forget others. Do we not have a duty to be engaged with other people’s persecution stories as well?

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of self-imposed Tibetan exile, led by the Dalai Lama. Since March 10, 1959, it has been unsafe for Tibetans to practice their religion and celebrate their culture in their own homeland. Tibetans are routinely imprisoned and tortured. Peaceful protest and demonstrations are prohibited. Persecution, exile, religious restriction – it’s a story we Jews know only too well.

McCleod Ganj, also known as Little Lhasa, is a scenic and quaint town in North India, located at the chilling altitude of 2000 metres. The mesmerizing Himalayas loom majestically in the backdrop. It is a home away from home for approximately seventy thousand Tibetan refugees. The narrow streets are lined with colourful Tibetan prayer flags. The musky smell of Tibetan incense pervades the handicraft shops. Elderly Tibetans dressed in traditional attire fervently clasp their rosary beads and mutter ancient mantras. The trendy younger generation, dressed in jeansnepal and sporting fancy haircuts, meander the streets aimlessly – they have no jobs. Buddhist mantras re-mixed with trance beats are repetitively played from shop windows, while “Save Tibet” beanies and t-shirts fill up the shelves of the souvenir shops. But of the six million Tibetans in the world, only 150 thousand of them may wear these t-shirts – in Tibet, it is illegal to even whisper the words. World media and international organizations report that the Chinese are imprisoning Tibetans merely for peaceful protesting and teaching Tibetan history. In many cases, incarceration also leads to torture. Over the past fifty years of the Tibetan struggle, it is estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese government. To my Jewish consciousness, this staggering figure brings up many images of our own suffering through history. This is another story we know all too well.

It is for this reason that thousands of Tibetans risk their lives every year to flee to Nepal or India. Parents and families gather huge sums and go into debt in order to send their children with mercenary Nepali guides, who promise to lead them through the perilous Himalayas. They do not know if they will ever see them again. The refugees walk at night for a month out of fear of being caught by Chinese patrols. Some develop frostbite but continue anyway, as the only other option is death, which often catches up with a few people along the way. Once across the border in Nepal or India, they are taken to a Refugee Centre to be medically treated and fed. Again, this reminds me of our own stories – of destitute columns fleeing across Europe to escape Nazi persecution.

In the past fifty years, the Tibetans in exile have done an incredible job of establishing a new home. Despite the looming obstacle of assimilation, they have managed to retain their Tibetan culture, language and sense of humour; but who knows what the situation will be in another fifty years. The children refugees are sent to a boarding school called a Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). No matter how old they are, and despite what grade they are coming from, all the children start from grade one again. They are assigned a ‘home mother’ – a substitute figure who cooks and cares for groups of thirty students. They are nurtured, disciplined and given a top Tibetan education, which is one of the main reasons for emigrating.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to meet 27 students from three different TCVs. Because of my previous experience as a madricha (Jewish youth leader), I was able to help lead at a Tibetan Youth Movement called Longsho (meaning “Rise Up”). In 2000, a British woman named Kalela Lancaster established the Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange (TJYE). Kalela saw that the Tibetans faced the same problem that Jews in exile have been facing for 2000 years – loss of cultural identity, and the challenge of how to preserve it in exile.

The aim of TJYE is to enhance the cultural identity of both Jewish and Tibetan youth through informal education, mainly through a summer and winter camp each year.  Tibetan leaders are sent to England to learn how Jews successfully run youth camps; promoting culture and religion while uniting the community. When they return to India, they then bring their knowledge and skills to the Tibetan community. As part of the exchange, Jews who are traveling through Mcleod Ganj and have attended Jewish youth camps can help out and contribute their expertise.

The camp turned out to be a replica of the camps I have grown to know so well throughout my years of involvement with Hineni. All I had to do was substitute the Jewish content and context for the Tibetan equivalent. Surprisingly, they even chanted the same songs that were so familiar to me, including the one about a senorita going to a fair in Netanya. The students, fiercely proud of their identity, all shed tears at the end of the ten day camp, realizing what a special experience it was and the importance of retaining their culture.

By the end of the camp, I realized that for we Jews, this is one small way we can help another people in need.  We may not be able to directly convince the Chinese government to give autonomy to the Tibetans, but we can support initiatives such as TJYE, which are beneficial to both parties and put our years of expertise to good use.

For those interested in reading more about TJYE projects, check out www.tjye.org.uk.

Keren Tuch is a Sydney-based physiotherapist, former Hineni madricha and intrepid world traveller.

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  • Michael says:

    Great post. Just wondering what your thoughts are on the fact that so many people draw the parallel from Tibet not to persecution of Jews but to the Arab-Israeli conflict with the Palestinians playing the role of the Tibetans in their eyes?

    Also do you know how prevalent actual loss of identity is (eg. assimilation)? Could part of it just be that in Tibet the culture is still a bit sealed off and sheltered?

  • Judith says:

    Wonderful article, good on you Keren!

    It’s great to see how the skills Jewish kids acquire in youth movements can be applied in a non-Jewish context as well, helping other communities.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Shame on China that they treat people like this, and thanks to those Jewish kids and people like Michael Danby MP who work hard to help the Tibetans in peril.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Michael,

    That parallel requires Israel to be likened to China. Just for starters, anyone educated with the basic facts ought to be able to see how absurd it is to liken a tiny country like Israel to a massive country like China. However, ask the average student wearing a chequered kaffiyeh “what’s the population of Israel” and if you get an answer, it probably will be closer to the population of China than to Israel’s actual population.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    frosh, even The Age (28/10) had the West Bank’s Palestinian population at 2.5 million, but we have Alexi Sayles and other Jews against Israel say it’s 3 million. So, that is from where these kaffiyeh wearing students get their information. Just more dis-information to demonize Israel, while China has a permanent seat on the UN security council and sees nothing wrong with Iran developing nuclear weapons. HELP

  • ariel says:

    Great work Keren!

    The Dalai Lama once asked The Chief Rabbi of Israel (I think?) to teach his people the secret of survival in exile…

    The only thing I would question is your opening qustion, “Do we not have a duty to be engaged with other people’s persecution stories as well?”

    Ideally this should be the case. However, with our own people suffering (now and throughout history) with nobody willing to help us, I often wonder whether I should be bothered helping anyone who probably wouldn’t help a Jew. In practice, however, the correct judgement should be made on a case-by-case basis.

    In the cases of Tibet and Darfur, I would say we should definitely help for the reasons and in the ways Keren states.

  • Keren says:

    Michael- It is true – some people, including some Tibetans will draw parallels with their situation with the Palestinians.
    Both face a degree of persecution in their homeland and neither no longer rule over their homeland. (Historically, the Palestinians did not rule over the mandate of Palestine, and the Tibetans only ruled in recent history one province out of the three they are claiming as Tibet.)
    But like in any situation, the issues are unique and complex.
    I don’t have a problem with drawing parallels between Tibetans and Palestinians in so far as they are both displaced people that face a degree of uncertainty of the fate of their people in their homeland. But that is where I would see the similarities end, and not just because of the relative super sizes of Israel and China!

    As to the rate of assimilation – I don’t have any facts or figures. I have been told that quite a few Tibetans have married foreigners who passed by as tourists in McLeod Ganj in India. I have also been told the Dalai Lama has commented that Tibetans are allowed to marry foreigners, as long as they retain their culture and heritage and pass it on to their children. Defining the culture and heritage is an interesting question. Is it the Buddhist religion? Is it the language? The songs? The dress code?

    Ariel – There was an exchange between the Dalai Lama plus some great Buddhist thinkers (some of Jewish origin), and a Jewish panel comprised of American Jews from different streams and thoughts. It occurred in 1990 or 91 and they tossed around different ideas, including establishing a Tibetan seder as a way of remembering the destruction and exile. There is a well written book called The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kaminetz that records this exchange along with the secular Jewish author’s own thoughts. Highly recommended.

    As to whether we should help others – that is another debate for another post! But interestingly you state that we should help Darfur, which I believe is a Muslim population, and does not have great relations with Israel. In fact Sudan (not necessarily Darfur) was (maybe still is?) a hotbed for Muslim extremists who want nothing more than to see Israel shrivel and vanish, including our friend Osama. What is important to distinguish is that not every human being that lives in a country with a certain ideology agrees with that ideology, and therefore throws the statement ‘we should not help them because they wont help us’ into a quandry.

  • Bleeding Heart says:

    “The only thing I would question is your opening qustion, “Do we not have a duty to be engaged with other people’s persecution stories as well?”

    Ideally this should be the case. However, with our own people suffering (now and throughout history) with nobody willing to help us, I often wonder whether I should be bothered helping anyone who probably wouldn’t help a Jew. In practice, however, the correct judgement should be made on a case-by-case basis.” -Ariel


    This is a disappointing sentiment.

    It is all too easy to see the glass as being half full when it comes to people helping the Jews.

    The number of Righteous Gentiles active throughout the Holocaust should be enough to dismiss this as a concern, let alone the broader and deeper moral issue of this very “eye-for-an-eye” sentiment.

    If there is anything to learn from our history of persecution we should be “naaseh v´nishma” when it comes to helping others. We even spill wine from our glasses at the Seder in recognition of the suffering of our greatest enemies.

    This is the moral ideal that I believe Judaism espouses. To help those even if they wont help us. The opposite isnt morality at all but mere self-interest and there is absolutely no moral high-ground there.

  • ariel says:

    Keren and Bleeding Heart – As I said, it should be done case by case. Whilst it would be ideal to help everyone in need, I have no qualms about questioning, for example, Israel’s over exuberance to help her enemies only to have them spit in her face.

    I make a marked distinction between Sudan the country and the people of Darfur who suffer under its regime. Israel has – through its genuine attempt at helping a suffering people – achieved a side effect of embarassing the Sudanese government by absorbing more refugees per capita than other Western countries and turning them into advocates for Israel and the Jewish People. You can see numerous videos on youtube of Darfuris in Israel saying this proudly.

    I make the same distinction between Iran the country and its population, most of whom have no argument with Israel and Jews and vice versa.

    As I said, case by case. “Don’t rejoice at the fall of your enemy” is a basic Jewish tenet. But it doesn’t mean that I should go out of my way to help a guy who wants to kill me and will very likely continue wanting to kill me even after I help him out of trouble. We should exercise judgement accordingly and help those who will appreciate it. Like Tibetans and Darfuris.

  • Michael says:

    Keren: Thanks for the info.

    On the comparisons with Israel, I guess I meant that I wonder if the Chinese would use the same arguments I see being made in support of Israel when talking about the Tibetans (eg. the media is biased against the Chinese, when you have more military resources it’s much easier for you to look bad when trying to react to violent protests etc).

    I guess it just makes me think whether there are specific incidents where people automatically assume that China is guilty because they have the military power — in the same way as these assumptions are often made about Israel.

    On the flip side, there is certainly racism both against Israelis and the Palestinians. I wonder what the equivalent here is. I wouldn’t be surprised if many Han Chinese see Tibetans as “primitive”, not fully human, a cancer on society, people who breed a lot, people who smell (it actually is customary not to bathe in Tibetan traditions I think, although washing might have penetrated a lot more in the last 50 yrs). It might be the same propagandist stories that keep popping up, whether of dirty Jews, dirty Palestinians, dirty Tibetans.

    Ariel: Can you provide a specific example of a humanitarian disaster or genocide where you think “we” shouldn’t help civilians because they probably wouldn’t help Jews if the tables were turned?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Michael,

    I think it could be fairly argued (and it is) that Israel is not merely in a conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is essentially in a conflict with the entire Arab world, as well as the Iranian regime, both of whom largely reject the very legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel. The Palestinians are simply the primary interface of that larger conflict, which is unfortunate for their people.

    Now, nothing of the kind can be said for the China-Tibet situation, where there is clearly no rejection of the existence of a Chinese state by the Tibetan people nor their government in exile.

  • ariel says:

    One example that comes to mind is helping most Arab countries (who don’t accept Israel’s help even when offered in natural disasters).
    Without going into details, there are many stories told of well-meaning Jews attending pro-Palestinian rallies in the US and Europe only to be greeted with cries of “ikhbat al yahud” – “slaughter the Jews”.

  • Michael says:

    Ariel: I don’t know how protests are relevant. But based on what you said you don’t think Israel should offer help to civilians of Arab countries in the case of disasters — is that right? Which countries?

  • ariel says:

    Protests are indicative of those who supposedly are in need.

  • Keren says:

    Michael – I think you are spot on the mark with what the Chinese government think of their actions. The Chinese government would love to acknowledge the advancements that the Chinese brought to Tibet, and how it rescued it from the dark ages (they have indeed tried to develop Tibet, but I’ll leave it up to your judgement if it is for the better.) And Im sure it will say the media is bias – everyone does right?

    But i might also comment that a lot of media is banned at certain tmes and certain area of Tibet too. I tried to go to Tibet in march this year, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama in exile. The Chinese, predicting protests etc banned any foriegners for entering Tibet, including myself. Foreigners are also only allowed into the country if they are on a ‘group’ tour, except in the capital of Lhasa.

    As to the racism that exists – Im not convinced. As far as Im aware, the average Han Chinese has nothing against the Tibetans, and have peaceful relations. Likewise, the Tibetans I have met have nothing against the Chinese people, just the government. A lot of Han Chinese are settling in Tibet due to encouragement (often financial) of the Chinese government – another possible similarity to Israeli government encouraging Jewish citizens to settle in the West Bank.

  • ariel says:

    Keren, I agree with everything except your last sentence.

    The Israeli government does not expel entire villages and hand them over to Israelis. Nor have they sent the Palestinian leadership into exile. (The opposite is true, they brought them in from Tunis). Finally, the Israli government does not suppress Arab culture and force Jewish culture upon Palestinians. Even inside Israel ‘proper’, minorities are allowed to run their own education systems wherein they are taught hatred of the very country which provides them with the freedom to practice their culture.

  • ra says:

    One thing that struck me when I visited the Tibet Museum in McCleod Ganj (http://www.thetibetmuseum.org/) was the wall of donor plaques. These plaques record the names of the individuals & organisations who have made large donations to the museum. A large proportion of them were in fact Israeli and I guessed that a good number of the others were Jewish (going on surnames).

    So perhaps Jews are more aware of the suffering that other people endure than we realized…

  • Chaim says:

    This conflict is actually the most well known and really a part of pop culture given the movies, celebrities involved and even the Dalai Lama himself who is as much a pop icon as a spiritual leader.

    Darfur in which at least 400000 people have been killed in the last 5 yrs (as opposed to Israel yet look at the media coverage) is also publicized and taken on by major organizations.

    There are many more which do not even get a mention:

  • Keren says:

    Ariel – I certainly agree that Israel and Chinese governments are completely different, but one may make a comparison between Israelis settling in the West Bank and Han Chinese settling in Tibet, even if it is for different reasons. As far as I’m aware, the Chinese have not ‘expelled entire villages’ of Tibetans – the Tibetans leave voluntarily. There is no imposed exile on any Tibetan people – they may do it in search of a better life where they can have freedom of expression and religion, but it is not enforced upon them.
    There are so many differences as well which you have pointed out, like imposing Jewish culture on Palestinians, as to why I do not say it the same situation!!

    ra – It is interesting you mention the Israeli plaques in the museum. There is an Israeli organisation called Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People which had a specific project of helping to establish this museum, especially because of Israel’s experiences with museums. http://tibet.realcommerce.co.il/eng_museum.htm

    Chaim – You’re right. There are a lot of conflicts around the world which don’t get any coverage, and I wouldn’t even be aware that they exist. Another example of a struggle that is barely mentioned is another province of China in the west called Xinjiang, where the large majority are Uigur Muslims who are also struggling for freedom of religion and independence, like Tibet. But perhaps, becasue this population is Muslim and doesn’t possess the celebrity status you mnetion of the Dalai Lama, their cause doesn’t warrant a lot of attention.

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