Similar to the Jews, the Chinese have a wide and impressive collection of ancient sayings. When spending time in the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I had an extraordinary opportunity to meet hundreds of Chinese students, faculty and administrators involved in Jewish studies. Indeed and possibly surprising for some, the Chinese “candle” to study and learn about Judaism and Jews is both significant and strategically important. With some ten departments or centers of Jewish study housed in China’s major academic institutions, there exists a profound and significant interest in and curiosity concerning Jewish culture and peoplehood.
Over the course of several weeks, I had occasion to give five formal lectures at three major Chinese universities. My host university, Nanjing is a world class institution, founded in 1902. My visits included presentations at Shandong University, located in Jinan, which has some 60,000 students on five campuses, and Henan University in Kaifeng, which houses the Center for Israel Studies.
China has an important and complex history with Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel. One need only read Jonathan Kaufman’s recent best seller, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China to capture the imprint of Jewish influence and engagement, especially with 19th and 20th Century China. Yet, the history of Jewish connections with China can be traced to the Han Dynasty, two hundred years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Silk Road trade route linked Jews from Babylonia and Persia very early to China. The first reports of Jewish settlements were during the Tan Dynasty (618-907 CE), when Jews were permitted to reside in Kaifeng.
Why Jewish and Israel Studies?
The Chinese have a fascination with Jews, you see. It’s partly because of mythologies related to perceived notions of “Jewish political influence” in America, but it’s also connected to the significance of Jews in Western history and culture. As the “other” great ancient civilization, Jews enjoy a level of respect and admiration among the Chinese.
There are probably multiple reasons for such departments of study. Underlying the intent here is political influence, as Israel and its American philanthropic supporters have understood for some time the strategic and essential value of helping to shape Chinese attitudes, expand information access, and support China’s existing belief that just as Jews have been a significant historical force in shaping Western ideas, China has been that same resource for Asia. These shared cultural roles have bound up these two civilizations, even as they developed separately from one another.
One needs to realize that there are few access points by Western sources to influence and shape Chinese policies. This academic enterprise is significant as the graduates of these programs will help over time to shape public opinion, national policy, and cultural relationships. These study centers are heavily subsidized by the “friends of the State of Israel” as a means of broadening exposure to Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel within the mainland. This must be seen as a strategic and essential investment for the future! Special credit must be given to the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation for their longstanding support of this initiative.
SIGNAL represents one of the strategic Israeli partners in moving forward the China-Israel connection. Through COLMAN (Israel’s College of Management Academic Studies), the China Media Center monitors Israel-China affairs. A 2019 Rand Corporation analysis provides a thorough analysis of the relationship and its long-term potential.
Trade and Technology:
Yet, despite the trade tensions between Washington and Pejing, Israel has navigated its own investment and trade relationships with China:
Since 2010, bilateral trade between Israel and China has doubled, with US$11.53 billion in Chinese capital flowing into Israeli tech firms and infrastructure contracts. But for China, this is less than 3 per cent of its total outbound investment.
Economic synergy between the two countries has never been stronger, with bilateral trade growing from $50 million in 1992 to over $13 billion as of 2017. China is Israel’s largest trading partner in East Asia and China invests billions of dollars a year in Israeli tech firms.
Case in point, the United States was clearly not pleased by the Government of Israel’s decision to sign a Haifa port deal (2015) with a Shanghai company, designed to upgrade the facilities of Israel’s northern port city.
Building Strategic Connections:
In reviewing my lecture series in China, we developed five goals in connection with this visit:
- Reach as many emerging young Chinese academic scholars
- Speak to as broad an audience of future leaders as possible
- Focus on areas of importance to China that also aligned with Jewish interests, i.e. Diaspora-homeland relationships, intergroup relations, and the strategic value of Israel as an international partner
- Contact as many key Chinese influentials as possible and explore the resources and access points scholars and students have with access to source materials, Israel and educators across the globe.
- Continue these strategic connections beyond my visit as a way to grow Chinese connections with Jewish and Israeli institutions and individuals
The Chinese were particularly accommodating, as they created large lectures, hosted banquets with key university officials following each presentation, and made it possible for me to meet privately with a significant number of students and faculty.
The Post-Visit Agenda:
Now, well beyond my visit and these meaningful encounters, I remain connected with a number of those with whom I met, both faculty and students. Beyond continuing to monitor the Israel-China connection, it is important to expand American Jewish relationships with local Chinese-American leaders and groups, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic’s hate-ridden attacks on Asian Americans. Chinese community leaders are anxious to extend their political connections not only with Jewish organizations but also with other ethnic and governmental resources.
While the major population centers of Chinese Americans include New York (800,000), the Bay Area (800,000) and Los Angeles (600,000), other large metropolitan areas (including Boston, Washington, Chicago, Honolulu, and Houston) have each between 50,000 to 150,000 Chinese residents.
Beyond the Present:
The long term international political scene will see the continued emergence of the People’s Republic as a major Asian and global power. The essential value for Israel will be to expand the Sino-Israel connection. Strengthening the strategic and technological connections between Jerusalem and Pejing ought to be seen as a critical priority.
No doubt, Jews can and will play a role in expanding cultural, economic and political relationships. Over the next several decades, business and commerce professionals, technology specialists, and academics will be critical in promoting ties between Western Jews and Chinese officials.