Tag Archives: China

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.

China Hedges Its Bets in the Middle East

By Gabriel Weinstein

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States was only the beginning of a busy week of diplomacy. Last Tuesday 10 Chinese government officials and academics arrived in Israel for three days of meetings with Israeli academics, policy analysts and government officials. The meeting is China’s latest attempt to bolster relations with Israel and become a trusted ally among Middle Eastern Countries.

For most of Israel’s history official relations with China were non-existent. Israel sought to establish a firm partnership with China after the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, but the Chinese government  did not acknowledge Israeli’s recognition. The relationship disintegrated in the mid-1950’s when Israel supported UN forces during the Korean War and chose to align with the United States during the Cold War. Though Israel and China engineered a series of covert weapons deals in the late 1970’s, official diplomatic relations were not restored until 1992.

Since then China and Israel have enjoyed a healthy commercial relationship. In 1992 the two countries traded $54 million worth of goods. By 2009 the figure mushroomed to $4.6 billion. Israel is a major supplier of agricultural, telecommunication and defense technologies in China. Major Israeli universities such as the Technion, Tel-Aviv University and Hebrew University have relationships with Chinese counterparts and integrate Chinese language and Asian studies into their curriculum.

Yet, much to Israel’s chagrine, China has showered goodwill on other Middle Eastern countries over the past decade to feed its insatiable appetite for oil. It helped Syria modernize its aging energy infrastructure and provided caches of weapons since the 1990’s. In October Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and Turkish Prime Minister announced plans for a railroad dubbed the “Silk Railway” to honor the ancient Silk Road between the countries. China is a major investor in Iraqi oil and has excused the government from paying outstanding loans from the Saddam Hussein era. Since 2005 leading Chinese oil companies Sinopec, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporations have invested in the several oil development projects in Israel’s arch nemesis Iran. Trade between China and Iran is valued at $21 billion and over 100 Chinese companies conduct business in Iran according to a report by CNA Analysis & Solutions on Sino-Iranian relations.

Although China’s cordial relations throughout the Middle East seems ominous for Israel, experts believe China does not want to become entangled in the regions mangled military landscape. Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China has “walked away from its past as a supporter of liberation movements” in the Middle East during a speech in July. According to Alterman, China does not view the region as strategically significant and prefers to maintain a low profile throughout the region. He cites China’s relationships with Israel and Iran as proof of China’s indifference.

The CNA report draws similar conclusions about China’s ambitions in the region. The report states China’s four goals in the Middle East are to prevent one global power from dominating the region, stem anti-Chinese and pro-Taiwan sentiments and garner support for broader Chinese foreign policy.

Although most experts believe China is not overly interested in the Middle East, China’s attitude toward Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is cause for concern. Experts in the CNA report were concerned Chinese companies sell equipment to Iran that could be used nuclear weapon production. The latest round of Wikileaks cables revealed the American government shares the same sentiments, as American diplomats have pleaded with China to monitor the industrial products that can be used to build nuclear weaponry it sells to Iran.

As China continues its geopolitical ascent, potential allies must not fear confronting China about its potentially careless political tactics. A nuclear-armed Iran is not just a threat to Israel, but to the entire global community as a potential strike on Israel might encourage Iran to broaden its military ambitions. The United States must respect and acknowledge China’s ascent to global prominence, but make clear that China’s policy of potentially reckless commerce will not be tolerated.

Jewish Mother Redux

By Symi Rom-Rymer

We’ve had the bad mother, the free-range mother, and now, thanks to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother.  From punishing late-night math sessions to grueling practice sessions to complaints over poorly-made birthday cards, Chua suggests that her methods of pushing her children to succeed are what American children need—and are lacking.  A Chinese mother herself—literally and figuratively—Chua writes in the Wall Street Journal that as opposed to Western mothers, “Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”   She does let some mothers of other cultures off the hook including Korean, Jamaican, and Irish—although not Jewish—whom she concedes may meet ‘Chinese mother’ standards.

Stereotypically, Jewish mothers have also been categorized as pushy and aggressive with their children, holding them to extremely high standards.  In her WSJ piece, Chua tells the story of the Chinese child who returns home with an A- only to have the parent ask why it wasn’t an A.  Growing up, I too heard—although never personally experienced—the same story.  Only it was a Jewish child bringing home an inferior grade to his Jewish mother.  Ironically, Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale Law professor and successful mystery writer, is Jewish and their kids are being ‘raised Jewish.’  But  despite his own achievements, Chua has cast him as the soft Westerner.

At what point along the way has the Jewish mother become more American—or Western?   In a piece about breaking down the Jewish mother stereotype, Dr. Paula Hyman points out that some of the intense mothering patterns that have worked their way into the Jewish mother persona were based on survival instincts needed in the small towns and shetels of Eastern Europe.  They were even needed in the new world to push children to succeed in an atmosphere where anti-Semitism was still prevalent.  But as Jews became more assimilated and reached the American middle class, the over-bearing mothering instincts became unnecessary and a source of derision.

Like immigrant Jewish mothers before them, Chinese mothers, too, must feel anxious about their children’s success in a country that may or may not accept them.  They, too, must feel that they have to push them in order to have the life that Americans of other ethnicities take for granted.  Which may speak to why Chinese immigrants—really immigrants of many different backgrounds—pressure their children to be the best.

To back up her parenting style, Chua points to a study that compares American middle-class mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers.  According to Chua, the study shows that 70% of Western mothers think that learning should be fun while 0% of Chinese immigrant mothers do.   But that is like comparing apples and oranges.  Western mothers have different concerns and see their children through a different lens.  They are likely to feel more comfortable in their identity as Americans and as a part of American society and not torn between two worlds as immigrant parents do.  Nor are they as fearful that American society will reject their children and block their potential success.

Today, Jewish parents are encouraged to release their children, to give them space to discover who they are and yes, even make learning fun, all in the name of Judaism.  According to Sharon Duke Estroff, a Jewish educator and parenting columnist, “the Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, or for its own sake. We shouldn’t learn Torah with ulterior motives.  By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our children as a means to an end.  Instead, we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement and privilege of discovering the world around them.”

Chua is unapologetic for her parenting style and sees Chinese immigrant parenting values as key to producing successful children. But she misses that while she and her husband had different upbringings, both have achieved similar levels of high success in their careers. In response to all of the controversy over Chua’s article, both of her children have defended her parenting style.  But perhaps one day, they will grow up and see that they do need not be a ‘Tiger mother’ to be a successful parent or have successful offspring.  It will be enough to model healthy, high-achieving behaviors for their children to be successful.  Just like both their grandparents.

Pork and Politesse: Chinese Tourists in Israel

“Should we not bring any snacks with pork?”

Maybe Chinese tourists’ reputation for boorishness is unfounded, given that this considerate inquiry was one of several posed to managers of the first organized Chinese group tour of Israel for non-business purposes. The first of two 10-day, 40-person contingents from the Peoples Republic of China landed at Ben Gurion this week.

While about 50,000 Israelis visit China every year, the Chinese headed this fall from Beijing to Tel Aviv are the first to go in the other direction. (I posted here recently about the prehistoric days of Israeli tourism in the PRC.)

Given Chinese urbanites’ intense interest in Jews and Jewish ways—beautifully recounted in Susan Fishman Orlins’s “Letter from China” in the magazine—we should expect to see more along this route, notwithstanding the cost of $3,000 a head for the 10-day trip.

The tour groups flew El Al. I wonder how they liked the food?

Photo by Malias.

—Mandy Katz
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As Chinese Come to Israel, Recalling One Israeli in China

We’ve come a long way since 1985, when Israeli travelers I met in China had to hide their “real” passports from local authorities and most Chinese I met had never left their home province, let alone crossed a national border. The China Daily recently reported that, on September 25, Chinese tourists will visit Israel for the first time without special business visas.

I hope Israel’s new guests find friends around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, which top their itinerary. I know I was never lonely during the year I spent roaming the People’s Republic with a manual typewriter and three changes of clothing. Besides billions of Chinese for company, I encountered a small army of other “foreign ghosts” traveling, like me, without tour guides or coach buses. In our dorm-style accommodations and in the streets, train stations and open-air markets, they were hard to miss.

Just a few of my fellow backpackers were Israelis. I was lucky enough in Lhasa, Tibet, to become fast friends with one of them, a dry-witted anthropologist from Netanya named Dina Heimann. Our decision to travel together after a planned rendez-vous with her brother, Eli, embroiled me in her life, and Israeli culture, in ways I never would have expected. Continue reading