A story we know only too well
Keren Tuch wonders if Jews can often be absorbed by Jewish struggles and history at the expense of others, and ask whether, as we delve into other people's persecution stories, do we not have a duty to be engaged to their cause as well?

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 every conflict in the world except the one which is closest to home, the Israeli-Palestinian one. I began thinking, as the warm brew ran down my throat, that we Jews can often be so absorbed by our own struggles and history that we tend to forget others. As we delve into other people's persecution stories do we not have a duty to be engaged to their cause as well?

This week marks the 50th anniversary of self-imposed Tibetan exile led by the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Since March 10 1959 it has been unsafe for Tibetans to practise 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, I thought - a story we Jews know only too well.

McCleod Ganj, also known as Little Lhasa, is a scenic and quaint town in North India, found at the chilling altitude of 2000m. The mesmerizing Himalayas loom majestically in the backdrop. It is a home away from home for approximately 50 000 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 jeans 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 out of the 6 million Tibetans in the world, only 150 000 of them may wear these t-shirts – in Tibet, it is illegal to even whisper the words printed on the t-shirt. World media and international organizations report that the Chinese are imprisoning Tibetans merely for peaceful protesting and teaching Tibetan history, which in many cases also leads to torture. Over the past 50 years of the Tibetan struggle, it is estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have died under 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, to my mind, this brings up our own stories – of destitute columns fleeing across Europe to escape Nazi persecution during WWII, Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. A story we know only too well.

In the past fifty years, the Tibetans in exile have done an incredible job of establishing a new home. One of the first actions of the Dalai Lama after fleeing Tibet was to consult with the Jewish community in New York to find out how the Jewish Diaspora kept its character through 2000 years of homelessness. The Tibetan community has also been generously aided by the Indian government and Western sponsors. For myself, as a former Jewish youth camp leader in Australia, I was particularly struck by how they took care of the children of refugees, many of whom are orphaned.

These children are sent to a boarding school called Tibetan Community Village (TCV). No matter 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 30 students. They are nurtured, disciplined and are given a top Tibetan education, which is also one of the main reasons they escaped. In January this year, I was fortunate enough to encounter 27 of these students from three different TCV's. In a fortuitous set of circumstances and because of my own previous experience as a madricha, I was able to help lead a Tibetan Youth Movement called Longsho (meaning "Rise Up" in Tibetan). In 2000, a British woman named Kalela Lancaster established the Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange (TJYE). Kalela incisively saw that the Tibetans faced one of the problems that Jews in exile have been facing for 2000 years - loss of identity and how to preserve it in exile.

The aims of TJYE are to enhance the cultural identity of both Jewish and Tibetan youth through informal education, mainly through a summer and winter camp each year. Every 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 attempt to bring their knowledge to the Tibetan community. And as part of the program, Jews who are traveling through Mcleod Ganj and have been through the Jewish youth camps can help out and input their skills. The camp turned out to be a replica of the camps I have grown to know so well, over my years of being involved with the Australian Youth Movement of Hineni. All I had to do was substitute the Jewish content and context for a Tibetan one. Surprisingly, they even chanted the same songs that were so familiar to me, including the one about Netanya. The students, fiercely proud of their identity, all shed tears at the end of the 10 day camp, realizing what a special experience this 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 sides and make use of our own expertise in surviving the galut. This may be a story we know too well but that is no reason for not helping to prevent another 2000 years of hardship.

Article by Keren Tuch