Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

by Amanda Walgrove

Chinese and Jewish cultures are among the oldest remaining civilizations in the world. Besides the spiritual divide, both cultures highly value family life and educational pursuits, and although both have absorbed various other cultures, their central foundations remain strong. As developments in the Middle East have begun to change the landscape of Israel’s international relationships, China has become a central player for it. While China’s attitude towards Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are worrisome, efforts are still being made to boost tourism, trade, and communicative cooperation between Israel and China. Most recently, on March 2, visiting Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming met with Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu with intentions of enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Although Sino-Israeli relations were first officially established as late as 1992, China’s history with people of the Jewish faith dates back to the eighth century.

Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center and Dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, has developed a recent project, Jews in China: Legends, History, and New Perspectives, which outlines the history of Jewish and Chinese relations, beginning with the four waves of Jewish immigration to China. As early as the eighth century, Jews from the Middle East traveled over the Silk Road to Kaifeng and formed a Kaifeng Jewish Community during the Song Dynasty. Many became government officials, doctors, clergymen, and businessmen. They assimilated into Chinese culture, learned the language, and began to intermarry.

While in China, Jews established a Chinese style synagogue in Kaifeng, influenced by Confucianism but modeled after Jerusalem synagogues. Jews had their own clubs, hospitals, cemeteries, and volunteer corps. Russian Jews had a fur bank in Shanghai, and opened the “Siberian Fur Store.” They founded over fifty newspapers that ran in over eight languages, such as the Israel Messenger (founded in 1904) and the Gelbe Post. The Kadoorie family opened a school for refugee children, free of charge, where many first learned to speak English. Mordechai Olmert, father of the former prime minister of Israel, grew up in Harbin. Most notoriously, China opened its doors to over 30,000 of refugees fleeing from the German occupation after 1938.

Not only did Chinese and Jewish cultures share certain core values, but they were also both subject to political persecution. After thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. Chinese were sympathetic towards anti-Semitic suffering. In his lecture, Guang noted that while prejudice may be imported, there has never been any native anti-Semitism on China’s soil. At the core, Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but they remain accepting of other spiritual aspirations. On a stone monument erected in 1489, Kaifeng Jews wrote: “Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends.” In turn, Jews in China supported the Chinese national-democratic movement against Japanese aggression and many began working with the Chinese Underground. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen famously acted as aide-de camp to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

Considering themselves, “old China hands,” Chinese Jews now live throughout the world and often return to their Chinese roots to visit old friends. Many have invested in business enterprises and taken advantage of their former home’s new upsurge of development. The commercially successful Shanghai Diamond Exchange Center, for example, was the brainchild of refugee, Shaul Eisenberg. But how do these amiable cultural assimilations tie in with current relations with Israel? Representative of the Schusterman Foundation and Project Interchange believe that by establishing and expanding Israel-related scholarship in China will create opportunities for deepened cultural ties and mutual appreciation between the Chinese and Jewish people, as well as an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. YNetNews.com writes, “Despite interest in Jewish culture, Middle East policy and even Hebrew language, few Chinese scholars have ever traveled to Israel, and Israel is rarely…the explicit subject of scholarly research.”

Today, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, contains only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (Guang argues that newspapers underreport the number at 3,000, excluding those that do not attend synagogue). While many Jews were pressured to leave China during the Cultural Revolution, the impact shared between the two communities stands strong today. Culturally, Jews in China became an academic hot topic during the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently extended to mass media. There is a wealth of Jewish how-to literature as well as a fascination with the Jewish mystique. Some Kaifeng Jews still follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut. Jordan Maseng, a native New Yorker working in China, recently opened up his own bagel shop in Beijing. Guang noted that there are over forty documentaries about Jewish relations in China but a narrative film has yet to be made. With a mixture of jest and sincerity, Guang admitted that he has many ideas but none of them seem good enough, rather adding the assertion, “We want a movie like Schindler’s List.”  Until that happens, Chinese Jews will continue to slowly contribute to the culture, while the rest of the Jewish population indulges in Chinese food.

One response to “Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

  1. Great article. I just discovered we have a Jewish ancestor in our family — looking to promote Chinese Jewish relations through my search.

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