TIME Foreign Policy

Where Democracy And American Zionism Butt Heads

If Israelis are allowed to disagree over the proper path for the nation, why shouldn't American Jews be given the same leeway?

Every year, wealthy American Jews spend millions of dollars to help build a lasting connection between young American Jews and the state of Israel. There are heavily subsidized summer trips for teenagers, young adult “Birthright” tours through Israel, and extensive year-long study abroad and exchange programs. The reason for all the spending can be read in the polls: Younger American Jews are far less likely than their parents to feel a connection to the Jewish nation. Visits during these formative years have a small demonstrated effect on reversing this tendency.

But the trips do not always come off as planned. One of the first things these young people learn when they arrive is that Israel’s Jewish population is far more diverse than most young Americans are ever led to believe—especially when it comes to their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the United States, views toward Israel are primarily cast in binary terms that have long structured the political debate: You either support Israel, or you don’t. You either stand with the Israeli people, or you don’t. It’s a mentality that dates from the early days of diaspora Zionism, the symptomatic logic of an existential threat. In times of war, ideological nuance is an unaffordable luxury.

In Israel, however, such restrictions do not apply. Politics is often passionately and bluntly debated—within families, within military regiments, on the street, in the newspapers and on television. Political coalitions rise and fall. Protests spring up in the streets. Government policy reverses itself on a dime. The nation largely functions, at least for those who have the rights of Israeli citizenship, with all the necessary inefficiency and messiness of a 21st century Democracy.

As a result of this contradiction, the American Zionist project often has an ironic result, or at least that’s what I witnessed almost 20 years ago, when I helped lead a Young Judea bus tour of Israel for a group of teenagers from San Francisco. The young people returned home to question the very premise of the American debate over Israel they were sent overseas to enforce. If Israelis are allowed to disagree over the proper path for the nation, why shouldn’t American Jews be given the same leeway?

The American Jewish community is still unable to provide a satisfactory answer to this question. On Wednesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to reject the membership application of J Street, a left-leaning American Jewish group that has as its mission an effort to “expand the very concept of what it means to be pro-Israel.” In practice, this means J Street is more closely aligned with the Israeli Labor party than the Likud Party; that it supports greater Israeli concessions to bring about a two-state solution; that it is more critical of Israeli history than most American Zionists; and that it does not share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish views on Iran.

By a vote of 22 to 17, the American Jewish community’s largest umbrella group has decided that these views, which are widely debated in Israel, should not be allowed as a part of mainstream American Jewish identity. In short, the American Jewish community is still not ready to embrace the messiness of a real Democratic debate. To disagree over the best policies for Israel is, for a slight majority of American Jewish institutions, still an act of opposition to the nation itself.

If the ultimate goal of the vote is to maximize American Jewish support for Israel, there is no easy way to know for sure whether such blackballing is a superior tactic to embracing more diversity of opinion. But in the meantime, the next generation of American Jews continues to demonstrate a significant drop-off in attachment to Israel. A 2013 Pew poll found that less than a third of American Jews under the age of 30 believed caring about Israel was essential to Jewish identity, compared to two thirds of American Jews over the ago of 65.

There are lots of reason for this drop-off, but at least one of them is the unaddressed tension between the American value of being free to criticize and the American Zionist value of not allowing criticism. In America, an inability to face down and debate opposing views under the First Amendment—even bigotry, hate and insanity—is seen as a sign of weakness, not strength. The next generation of American Jewish youth is growing up in a culture and country that disconnects identity from ideology. But a majority of American Jewish institutions are not ready to take that step.

TIME Foreign Policy

Jewish Group Votes to Reject J Street

J Street founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks to Brandeis University students on Feb. 25, 2010.
J Street founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks to Brandeis University students on Feb. 25, 2010. Pat Greenhouse—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

An umbrella organization for Jewish advocacy groups voted to exclude a dovish pro-Israel organization that has struck a chord with younger Jews. J Street, which also bills itself pro-peace and is critical of some Israeli policies, is viewed warily by more hawkish groups

The leading Jewish umbrella organization in the United States voted Wednesday against admitting the liberal-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, highlighting the often contentious rifts that exist within the American Jewish community.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, comprising 50 voting members of varying size, voted to deny J Street membership. Of the 42 groups represented at the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained, the New York Times reports, citing people present because the actual count was private. J Street needed 34 votes to join.

The dovish group has ruffled feathers since its inception six years ago, when it sought to be an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group that has dominated debate of Israeli issues in Washington. Billing itself as both pro-Israel and pro-peace, J Street has taken stances that are critical of Israeli government policy toward Palestinians and out of line with the typically lockstep stances of major American Jewish groups. J Street has, for example, backed the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran and opposed Israel’s 2008 military incursion into Gaza.

But the group has tapped into frustration with the existing pro-Israel political movement in the U.S., particularly among younger, more liberal Jews, claiming almost 60 university campus chapters. In a Pew poll last year, almost half of American Jews said they didn’t believe the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians

During Wednesday’s vote, J Street received the support of several mainstream Jewish groups, according to a statement from J Street, including representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements as well as the influential Anti-Defamation League. The vote was reportedly divided between the Orthodox groups and non-Orthodox members.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, told the Jewish newspaper The Forward that the groups backing J Street’s membership represented a larger number of Jews, meaning the group effectively “won the popular vote.”

Some of the groups that supported J Street’s membership have not been public about their decision, and others said they supported its membership even if they still disagree with some of its stances.

“A mistake was made today,” Schonfeld said. “It is of crucial importance to the future of the Jewish community that a full range of views is represented, and that we be part of a robust dialogue to achieve what we are all committed to, which is a safe, secure and thriving Israel.”

In its statement Wednesday, J Street said it was “disappointed” with the decision.

“In many ways the vote illustrates one of the key reasons that J Street was created in the first place and why we continue to grow,” J Street said. “A large segment of the American Jewish community feels that it does not have a home or a voice within its traditional structures.”

The Conference of Presidents released a statement Wednesday announcing that J Street did not receive enough votes and noting that some current member organizations were rejected when their were first up for a vote.

“The present membership of the Conference includes organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last fifty years,” the Conference said.

TIME TIME 100

TIME 100 Alumni Who Continue to Inspire Change

Over the past 10 years, TIME has chosen some of the world’s biggest movers and shakers for its annual list of the most influential people in the world. Many of them have continued to transform themselves and the lives of others long after their inclusion.

Take Hillary Clinton, for example. The one-time First Lady has appeared on the list eight times (including one time with husband Bill) as she evolved from senator to presidential candidate to Secretary of State to (unofficial) presidential candidate again. We’ve selected several other honorees that we think fit the bill.

TIME Syria

U.N. Security Council Gets Serious on Syria Aid to Limited Effect

Syria has failed to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding access for humanitarian aid to besieged civilians, and more than 9 million people there overall are thought to need assistance, but real repercussions are unlikely unless Russia gets on board

It didn’t take long. Just two months after world powers celebrated the unanimous adoption of a groundbreaking resolution by the United Nations Security Council calling for the delivery of aid to millions of desperate Syrians, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos all but admitted defeat. “Far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. Violence has intensified over the last month, taking an horrific toll on ordinary civilians,” Amos told reporters after a closed-door Security Council briefing at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday. “I’ve told the Council that Resolution 2139 is not working,” she said, referring to the measure that even staunch Syria ally Russia had supported.

The resolution specifically demanded that the regime of President Bashar Assad cease its use of indiscriminate barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas, and threatened “further steps” if its calls to open the way for the delivery of essential humanitarian aid went unheeded. Yet just hours before the Council met, the government unleashed a barrage of barrel bombs on a school in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 20 and further underscoring the resolution’s failure to improve the situation. While some anti-government militias have prevented humanitarian access in the areas they control, the resolution was largely directed at the Syrian government, which the Council singled out for continuing to use siege tactics on civilian populations, preventing humanitarian assistance and denying medical aid—actions the council has described in the past as violations of international humanitarian law. In a 60-day assessment of the resolution’s implementation, released last week, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted, “People are dying needlessly every day,” and demanded that the Security Council “take action.”

Ban’s report, as well as assessments by a wide array of UN agencies, international aid organizations and human rights groups, shows that Syrians are still besieged, still starving, and still being denied medical assistance. “We have seen no significant change on the ground [since the resolution was implemented,]” says Vanessa Parra, Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America, an international aid organization operating in Syria. “There have been some piecemeal instances of assistance getting through, which is welcome of course, but not with any predictability, and not in any way that fundamentally alters the dire humanitarian situation.”

In her remarks following the Security Council meeting, Amos called for a robust response to the Syrian regime’s intransigence. “I think the onus rests on the Council to not only recognize that reality, but to act on it,” she said. But the threat of “further steps” is increasingly looking meaningless. Any decisive action by the Security Council, such as sanctions or military action, would require another resolution, one that most certainly would invite a Russian veto.

For 27-year old Samer, an anti-regime activist from Homs who asked to go by only one name to protect his family, it is incomprehensible that any nation would hold back humanitarian access for political gain. Especially, he points out, when civilians caught in the middle of the warring sides are the starving victims. “I wish Russia would take part in constructive dialogue instead of preventing humanitarian organizations from doing their job,” he says.

According to the U.N., more than nine million Syrians — nearly half the population — are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Many are in hard to access areas or in territory held by the opposition. Yet in defiance of the U.N. resolution, the Syrian government has strictly limited access to areas outside government control, meaning that the U.N. and other international aid agencies cannot reach the populations most in need. Furthermore, the Syrian government, citing a legal justification of sovereignty, will not allow humanitarian aid to come across any rebel-held border. With all but one border post on the northern frontier with Turkey in rebel hands, and access to Jordan’s border crossings in the south similarly limited, the Syrian regime is essentially funneling all international aid deliveries through the few remaining corridors that lead to the capital Damascus, while depriving large swaths of the country of essential assistance.

The U.N. operates in Syria only with government permission, and has, until now, been beholden to regime dictates that it not access populations in need except via regime-sanctioned corridors. International humanitarian law experts challenged that practice in an open letter to the UN on April 28, saying that current conditions trump traditional practice. Kristyan Benedict, the Syria campaign manager for London-based Amnesty International, says that the humanitarian imperative is paramount. “The UN needs to reconsider its adherence to these rules. Topline, we want unfettered cross border humanitarian access. I don’t think anyone can justifiably say that the concept of state sovereignty is more important than saving lives, especially when the state claiming sovereignty continues to commit war crimes.”

Samer, the activist from Homs, says that it is time to focus on saving lives, even if that means breaking international law by going against regime wishes. “There should be an international committee to protect UN workers and they should deliver aid under international protection, no matter what the regime says,” he tells TIME via Skype. The risk is that the government can kick out the U.N. entirely if it defies regime directives, as officials have already threatened to do to international aid organizations registered in Damascus that have been caught conducting cross border operations elsewhere in the country. Aid agencies, as with the U.N., are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of defying the rules. It’s a complex calculation, says Benedict, one made more difficult by the U.N.’s political role in the country, and continuing hopes for a lasting political solution. Breaking the rules, says Benedict, “does not mean we are going to reach everyone, but the question is, could we be reaching more people than what is currently allowed by government permission?”

And if the regime does decide to retaliate by kicking out the U.N., he adds, it may make for more clarity on future Security Council decisions. “Sure, the regime authorities may tell the U.N. to get out. But if they do, it would further make the case that the government is using civilians as pawns in a political game. Totally denying access to humanitarian aid would be a clear sign that the leadership has lost all legitimacy.” And Russia, he says, at that point, may be forced to reconsider its unquestioning support for Syria.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada/ Beirut

TIME Turkey

May Day Demonstrators Clash With Istanbul Police

As demonstrators marked May 1 around the world, protesters in Istanbul tried to defy a government ban on marching in Taksim Square.

May Day demonstrators defied a protest ban and took to the streets around Istanbul’s Taksim Square Thursday, prompting clashes with police sent in preparation for what’s known around the world as a day of protest.

Police used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators, including a mix of trade unions, opposition activists and far left groups celebrating what has been dubbed International Workers’ Day, Turkish state news reports. Some protesters threw fireworks and stones at police.

Several unions had said earlier that they would ignore Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s warnings not to march on Taksim Square.

“We will be in Taksim despite the irrational and illegal ban. All roads will lead to Taksim on May Day, and our struggle for labour, equality, freedom, justice and peace will continue,” top unions said in a joint statement, Reuters reports.

Roads and streets leading to Taksim Square were closed off Thursday, and authorities deployed nearly 40,000 police in Istanbul ahead of the protests.

The square’s iconic status is linked to its history as a hotspot for protests. A sit-in against urban development plans snowballed into weeks of mass anti-government protests in the area last year. And on May 1, 1977, 36 people were killed after unidentified gunmen fired on a massive May Day demonstration in the square.

May Day demonstrations took place around the world on Thursday, with some leading to clashes with police. Nearly 1,000 workers and opposition supporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia ignored a protest ban and clashed with security forces.

[Anadolu Agency]

TIME Malaysia

MH370 Report Reveals, Families Told ‘Go Home’

A report on the Malaysian flight, which went missing March 8 with 239 on board, also called for real-time position tracking of all commercial flights

A preliminary MH370 report released Thursday calls for real-time position tracking of all commercial flights in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which has left 239 passengers and crew missing since early March.

The Malaysian Transportation Ministry’s report also contains audio recordings of conversations between the cockpit and air traffic control as well as information on the Malaysian military’s tracking of the plane. However, it adds few details previously unknown about the plane’s fate.

The report, which was first sent to the United Nations’ aviation agency earlier this week, comes just as Malaysia Airlines advised relatives of people on Flight 370 to leave Kuala Lumpur and wait for updates on the search from “within the comfort of their own homes.” The families had been staying in hotels paid for by the airline.

“We have to face the hard reality that there is still no trace of the aircraft, and the fate of the missing passengers and crew remains unknown till this day,“ the airline said in a Thursday statement that signals the search could continue for weeks, months or even years.

The airline also said that it will begin making advanced compensation payments to the next of kin of those aboard the flight.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8 with 239 on board while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A massive international search for the plane has failed to find any wreckage. The aerial search for debris was called off Monday, though investigators are continuing the search using unmanned submarines.

TIME Nigeria

Nigerian Militants Sell Kidnapped Schoolgirls as Child Brides

Nigeria Kidnapped Girls
Wednesday hundreds of protesters demonstrated in front of Nigerian government buildings, calling on the government to do more to free the kidnapped girls. Gbemiga Olamikan—Associated Press

Abducted children are reportedly being sold off as brides for as little as $12. Outrage over the government's failure to free the young captives is growing in Nigeria with mass protests in recent days

Nigerian officials say they are negotiating with local rebels over the release of about 180 abducted schoolgirls, many of whom have reportedly already been sold as child brides.

The Boko Haram militants, who abducted the children ages 12 to 17 two weeks ago, are demanding an unspecified ransom from Borno state officials, a community leader told the Associated Press. He also said that two of the girls, who were taken after completing their final exams and driven off to the remote Sambisa forest, have died from snake bites.

On Wednesday reports emerged that the girls were being sold for $12 each and forced to marry. Some have been taken across the border into Chad and Cameroon, their families say.

Outrage over the government’s failure to free the captives is growing among Nigerians, and on Wednesday several hundred protesters took to the street to press authorities toward decisive action. Senator Ali Ndume has called for international help to free the abductees, saying the government must do “whatever it takes, even seeking external support to make sure these girls are released,” as he believes the Nigerian military has been proved incapable of rescuing them.

Others complain about the security forces’ slow response. The girls have reportedly been driven around in open trucks by the militant group, which has taken over large swaths of the country’s northeast.

“What bothered me the most is that whenever I informed the military where these girls were, after two to three days they were moved from that place to another. Still, I would go back and inform them on new developments,” Senator Ahmad Zanna told the Nigerian news group Persecond News.

Boko Haram is vehemently opposed to Western education and aims to create a strict Islamic state in the northern part of the country. The kidnapping of the girls is seen as one of the most brazen attacks in the five years since the group grew to prominence.

TIME India

Mixed Feelings on Polling Day for the Indian Elections in Modi’s Home State

Narendra Modi
India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, displays the victory symbol to supporters after casting his vote in Ahmedabad, India, on April 30, 2014 Ajit Solanki—AP

Supporters of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat state, are confident of victory. Even those fiercely opposed to him remain disillusioned with the incumbent Congress Party and crave change

When will politicians learn to beware of the selfie? Like others before him, Narendra Modi’s dalliance with the social-media favorite seemingly backfired on Wednesday, polling day in his home state of Gujarat. After the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime-ministerial candidate emerged from casting his vote in Ahmedabad, photographers clicked as Modi took a selfie with his inked finger and the BJP symbol, the lotus. But displaying a party symbol in an active polling area is an election no-no — as was, apparently, Modi’s address to reporters that followed. India’s Election Commission quickly requested that Gujarat open an investigation into its chief minister for violating election code of conduct for attempting to influence voters on voting day.

Still, Modi supporters in Ahmedabad were confident that they would soon see their candidate in the Prime Minister’s seat. In the national elections under way in India, voters across Gujarat went to the polls on April 30 to vote in the state’s next group of 26 lawmakers in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Modi is standing for one of the seats in the city of Vadodara, in addition to a seat in the holy city of Varanasi, where voting takes place in the coming weeks. “Modi is the king of Gujarat,” says Sachin Patel, a 26-year-old BJP volunteer at the Nishan School polling station. “After this election, I hope he’ll be the king of India. We need him.”

Not everyone in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s biggest city, is so sure. Before elections, several opinion polls showed growing support for Modi and the BJP across the country, with many voters disenchanted with the past decade of a Congress-led government that has presided over multiple scandals and a weakened economy. Modi promises to change all that, bringing his model of Gujarat governance to the national stage, from streamlining bureaucracy to pulling in investment to improving the performance of welfare programs for the poor.

But despite the strong anti-incumbency mood, Modi remains a divisive figure for many. He was chief minister of Gujarat when bloody religious riots broke out in the state in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people, the majority of whom were Muslims, were killed. Many in Ahmedabad’s Muslim neighborhoods continue to hold Modi’s administration accountable for what happened to their community, though he has always strongly denied any involvement, and Indian courts have cleared him of any wrongdoing.

The BJP has downplayed that history — and their candidate’s Hindu-nationalist roots — in its campaign. But the question of secularism remains a hot-button election issue, with recent anti-Muslim comments by some of Modi’s associates again stirring up concerns across the country. In Ahmedabad, some say those concerns are valid, and believe the BJP-led government has perpetuated an anti-Muslim climate since the riots. “They create a sense of insecurity in the [Hindu] majority,” says Waqar Qazi, who lives in Juhapura, a Muslim area of the city. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a new political party whose leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is running against Modi in Varanasi, has also been campaigning as an alternative in Gujarat in the run-up to the polls. But for most Muslim voters, Qazi says, the choice is about what party has the best chance of preventing the BJP from coming to power in New Delhi. “Congress has failed to be a strong opposition,” Qazi says. “But it’s still the best choice.”

The Modi government says Muslims in Gujarat have prospered along with the rest of the state. The chief minister’s supporters agree. “Even Muslim people say they are safer in Gujarat today than they would be in other parts of India,” says Amar Dave, a retiree who voted at the same polling station as Modi. In Saheb Nagar, a small colony built for Muslim families whose homes were destroyed in the riots, residents say they do enjoy a bubble of security within the confines of their community. But they also feel left out of the new prosperity that other Gujaratis around them seem to be enjoying.

Here, Modi’s high-octane road show, selfies and all, feels like it’s happening in a different city, and not just a few kilometers away. For the residents of the Saheb Nagar colony, the vote is less about who can defeat the BJP and more about who can fix the local drainage system and get rid of the large, deep pool of raw sewage water at the entrance to their community. “Congress hasn’t done anything for us for the last 12 years either,” says Nasim Banu, a 40-year-old mother of four whose family was displaced in the 2002 riots. She throws an arm toward the fetid pool of water. For years she has voted for Congress in principle, as an alternative to the BJP. But today she cast her vote for AAP, the only group she thinks has a chance of bringing real change. “We trusted Congress and they disappointed us. Now we’ll try trusting AAP.”

TIME Canada

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Seeks Help for Substance Abuse

The Toronto mayor, who admitted he smoked crack, will step away from a re-election campaign and seek help for substance abuse, after a new recording surfaced that allegedly captures Ford at a bar making offensive remarks about mayoral contender Karen Stintz

Updated 12:45 p.m. ET on May 1

Notorious crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is taking a break from the campaign trail to seek help for substance abuse problems, his attorney said Wednesday.

Ford’s time out comes after an audio recording (warning: offensive language) purportedly of him at a local bar surfaced earlier this week, where he can be heard being “unruly” and making offensive comments about mayoral contender Karen Stintz. The unverified recording is the latest such incident in the mayor’s infamous record of being belligerent and spouting off in a drunken and/or drug-fueled stupor.

“It’s not easy to be vulnerable and this is one of the most difficult times in my life,” Ford said in a statement Wednesday. “I have a problem with alcohol, and the choices I have made while under the influence. I have struggled with this for some time.”

“He’s doing what I think most of the population thought would be appropriate a number of months ago. At that time he didn’t think he should, and now I think he realizes, so that’s a good step,” Ford’s lawyer Dennis Morris told the Toronto Star.

While Ford’s attorney did not unveil the specifics of the treatment he would seek, the 44-year-old’s admission that he struggles with substance abuse comes after many months of denying he has a problem.

“I think the public realizes that he may face certain substance abuse problems and was not admitting to them. Finally admitting to a problem is the first step to rehabilitation,” Morris said.

Although Ford has largely been stripped of most formal powers he once possessed as mayor, he launched his reelection campaign two weeks ago promising he wouldn’t “back down.”

 

TIME Asia

In China, Deadly Bomb and Knife Attack Rocks Xinjiang Capital

Security personnel inspect the explosion site outside Urumqi South Railway Station in Urumqi in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, April 30, 2014 after an explosion that killed some people and injured some.
Security personnel inspect the explosion site outside Urumqi South Railway Station in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on April 30, 2014 An He—EPA

At least three people were killed and 79 others injured after an explosion and knifing spree near a train station in northwestern China, seemingly the latest attack orchestrated by the autonomy-seeking Uighur minority

Just hours after China’s President Xi Jinping was wrapping up a rare visit to the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, an explosion and knifing spree near a train station in the regional capital Urumqi left at least three dead and 79 injured. The detonation at Xinjiang’s largest train station, which occurred at around 7:10 p.m. on April 30, emanated from a clutch of luggage left between the station’s exit and a nearby bus stop, according to China’s official news agency Xinhua, which quoted one man saying the blast was so powerful he mistook it for an earthquake. Xinhua also reported that “an initial police investigation showed knife-wielding mobs slashed people at the [station’s] exit.” On Thursday afternoon, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, reported that two of the three fatalities were “mobsters [who] set off bombs on their bodies and died,” while the third casualty was a bystander.

Witness photos of the aftermath, including those of bloodied bags strewn on the ground, were quickly deleted on Chinese social media by government censors. Hours after the attack, Xinhua quoted Xi taking a strong stance: “The battle to combat violence and terrorism will not allow even a moment of slackness, and decisive actions must be taken to resolutely suppress the terrorists’ rampant momentum.” But Xinhua’s own social-media alerts on the rail attack were later censored by one Chinese portal as well.

The homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uighur people, Xinjiang has simmered with unrest in recent years. At least 100 people have died in battles and raids that have centered on symbols of the state, like police stations. But violence has also spread to other parts of China. Last year, an SUV plowed into crowds at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists. Police said the car’s occupants, who also died after flames engulfed the vehicle, were Uighur separatists — a man, his wife and his mother. In March, in the most shocking incident to date, 29 passersby were slashed to death at another train station, this time in Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Chinese authorities have released few details about that incident but blamed a gang of knife-wielding separatists from Xinjiang for the deadly strike.

During Xi’s four-day “inspection tour” of Xinjiang — his first since assuming power in 2012 — he decried the spasms of violence that have convulsed the region. Once a vital way station on the Silk Road, part of Xinjiang briefly claimed independence from China early last century as the Republic of East Turkestan. Xi vowed a “strike-first” strategy in the restive region and saluted local police, who hail mostly from China’s Han ethnic majority, as the “fists and daggers” in the battle against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” Xi was quoted as saying in Chinese state media. But the Chinese President also showed a softer side, with state TV broadcasting images of Xi smiling as he chatted with Uighur men wearing traditional prayer caps.

A Muslim ethnicity that takes cultural cues from Turkic Central Asia rather than Han China, the Uighurs complain of religious and social repression by the Chinese government. (It is a grievance shared by Tibetans, some 130 of whom have burned themselves to death in horrifying self-immolations.) Some Uighurs also say they have been overwhelmed by a mass migration of Han to Xinjiang, which has turned Uighurs into a minority in their own homeland and left them with fewer job options.

But the escalation of bloodshed, in which innocent civilians have perished, has made the Uighur campaign for sympathy — much less meaningful autonomy — a tougher sell. And each bout of violence brings another security crackdown that may only serve to alienate more Uighurs. After 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang, in which some 200 people died, Internet access was shut down for months. Since then, hundreds of Uighurs have been arrested, and exile groups complain of a lack of judicial due process. In the case of the Kunming attack, only the name of the alleged ringleader of the attackers has been released; the case was declared “solved” just two days after the killing spree.

Shortly after Wednesday’s Urumqi explosion, Dilxat Raxit, the spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, a leading exile organization, told Reuters he deplored the heavy security clampdown in Xinjiang and fretted that “such incidents could happen again at any time.” A May 1 Xinhua editorial, with imperfect English translation, responded furiously: “Could he be more licentious by being not even bothered to gloss over his bloodlust? Anyone who preaches killing one’s own kind is a murder.”

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