Dmitri Shufutinsky

Asians, Jews, and the Yellow Peril

When discussing anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, the last place one is usually discussing is Asia. With the exception of communist North Korea or Islamic countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, anti-Semitism is a foreign concept and a rare occurrence in the world’s biggest continent. What makes this phenomenon strange is that so few Jews live in Asia (outside of the Middle East). Shouldn’t a geographic area with a small Jewish population, and thus, less positive images of or contributions by a Jewish community, be more suspicious of them? Or is it that because there are fewer Jews, the people of Asia see no reason to bear hostility to them? These are questions that some are grappling with. And yet in many ways, Jews and Asians face the same sort of discrimination in Western countries or elsewhere where they find themselves as minorities.

For all the supposed “Jewish influence” in Hollywood, just look at the ways we are portrayed in the media. Much like Asians on TV, it’s often as sexually unappealing, computer nerds, and wimpy geeks who are often the victim of high school bullying. If we’re lucky, it’s the token minority who is a sidekick friend to the popular kid. There are exceptions, of course—whether in positive cases, such as badass characters in martial arts films, or Gisele Yashar in the Fast & Furious franchise, or negative cases, with emotionless, devious, and brutal Chinese or North Korean villains and shifty Jewish bankers/dealmakers or devious Israeli intelligence officials. The parallels are astounding.

Many of these portrayals and views of Jewish and Asian people in the media and entertainment industry reinforce–or are a reflection of–how society, international organizations, corporations, and political leaders wish us to be, and how they view us when we don’t conform to these roles. For example, the Western World loves the Indian Subcontinent and Far East when it is used for cheap slave labor to manufacture, en masse, cheap clothing and electronics for Western consumers at a low cost. It despises and fears, however, when Asian countries try to assert their own independence and interests.

Take the example of the dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Indeed, he was a brutal despot whose death should not be mourned. However, while he was a bulwark against communism (and therefore supported by the USA), he refused to become a puppet of the Americans outright, and later found himself overthrown (and, alongside his brother, assassinated), with American approval. Had he been more willing to be a puppet of Washington DC, this may never have happened.

The concept of a rising Japan shortly after World War One also provoked fears of a “Yellow Peril”, in which eastern Asians were viewed as devious, sneaky, and untrustworthy–always out to get someone and conquer the West. Racist propaganda during World War Two in the United States against the Japanese, and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans in camps throughout the American West, reeked of the very racist evil the USA was fighting in Europe. While the Allies ultimately were proved right about the brutality of Japanese colonialism in Asia, much of the bloodshed could possibly been prevented had the Western powers been more accommodating of a rising Japan after “The Great War”, rather than giving into racial hatred against a non-European people.

Similarly, in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the USA’s campaign of “liberation” in the Philippines after the defeat of the Spanish didn’t help lead to the independence of the Filipino people. Rather, it led to a bloody imperial campaign and guerrilla war, tinged with American racism at the “little brown brothers” who were seen as incapable of ruling themselves. In more recent times, you can find Taiwan as another example.

A few months ago, Donald Trump seemed to be flirting with the idea of doing away with the One China policy maintained by Western (and especially American) politicians for decades. When Ing-Wen Tsai,Taiwan’s first female president who is head of a more independence-minded party, called President Trump to congratulate him on his victory, numerous officials were freaking out, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they were on. They did so even more when the president suggested he may not conform to the One China policy unless a more favorable trade deal to the US was reached with Beijing (ultimately no such change occurred). Despite Taiwan being far more democratic and progressive than China, even liberals have abandoned it. And while the West is right to be wary of China’s blatant violation of international law and abusive human rights situation, it’s hostility towards Beijing is no doubt a resurrection of the century-old ideology of the “Yellow Peril”.

This is not unique to Asians, however. Jews have also suffered from similar thinking and actions—our own “Yellow Peril”, if you will. The Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s was not so different from immigration restrictions that prevented more European Jews from coming to the United States in the 1920s, or from moving to America, Britain, the Mandate of Palestine or other places around the time of the Holocaust. Propaganda in Germany against the Jewish people is well-documented, but less well-known in many circles is the similarly racist smear campaign of Jews in America by Henry Ford or Walt Disney.

This, too, exists in the modern day, from the accusations of extremist Bernie Sanders supporters and Occupy Wall Street protesters claiming that “Zionist Jews brought down the banking system” to isolationists of all political stripes blaming Israel for the War on Terror and invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much like how the loyalty of Japanese-Americans was questioned from 1941-1945,  the loyalty of American Jews continues to come in doubt–as was the case with Senator Bob Melendez and David Friedman not long ago during the confirmation hearing for the president’s Israel envoy pick. After the Holocaust, there was much sympathy for the creation of Israel, and a lot of guilt and shame towards the initial inaction of the Allies to save the Jews. Much of this also has to do with the romanticized “root for the underdog” and “save the victim” mentality. Just as Americans had embraced the USA’s war against Spain to liberate Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from tyrannical colonialism (partially for the embellished incident with the Maine and due to the country’s own history against colonial rule), so, too, they wanted to back another oppressed people–that they’d done so little to save–against massive, well-equipped Arab armies. The racist shouts of “Jews, go back to Palestine!” from prior decades and centuries were now suddenly championed as a liberation cry for Jews during the late 1940s until around the time of the Six-Day War.

But the backing ended among the “root for the underdog” crowd after Israel emerged from a socialist-leaning, poor, refugee country surrounded by enemies to a triumphant, First World, regional hegemon that thrashed its neighbors once again in a fight for its existence. Historically, even Western anti-Semites acknowledged that Jews were a Middle Eastern people, hence their repeatedly telling the Jews to return to Palestine and turning to bizarre racial theories of superiority, as the Nazis did. Suddenly, though, the anti-Jewish racism saw cries of “Jews, get out of Palestine!” Europeans and isolationists, who had once seen Jews as a non-White people who didn’t belong in Europe anyways, not denied the Jews of their indigenous history and heritage in the Land of Israel and claimed they were Europeans. Not only does this literally whitewash the history and existence of millions of Jews from outside of Europe, but it ignores overwhelming genetic evidence that even Ashkenazi Jews are not a European people! They pointed to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians as being the sole sole cause of violence in the Middle East and the greatest threat to world peace, despite the fact that there are only 14 millions Jews in the world and Israel is an extremely small portion of the vast Middle Eastern region, where the Arab population is the biggest ethnic group. They claim that Israel is a foreign colonial power, ignoring the history of Arab colonialism that has destroyed entire cultures (ancient Persia) and stolen land from countless ethnic groups (Kurds and Berbers).

So what is the reason for this change of heart and mind? The simplistic view of “root for the underdog” is one reason. As soon as one underdog is no longer an underdog, it either becomes ignored or becomes a threat. In the case of Jews and Asians, there’s a racist and Euro-centric tinge—that as long as we fit into their mold, of being weak and reliant on help from the West–there’s room for us in the world (hence the EU’s fervent backing of a two-state solution that would imperil Israel geographically). But as soon as we begin to assert our own interests, which may not always coincide with Western interests, Jews and Asians are a threat to a global and liberal world order, responsible for bringing the Earth close to another destructive, global conflict, and conniving to drag the West into war or influence its economy and foreign policy (as the Trump campaign has often, in dog-whistle language, accused South Korea and Japan of doing). In countries where we are minorities, we are positively viewed as the “model minorities” and subjugated to “polite stereotypes” and micro-aggressions of being rich or good at math. Yet because of these perceived privileges, our own struggles against discrimination often go unheard, or are brushed aside. The Yellow Peril is still alive and well in 2017, although it has now evolved and expanded into including Jews within its ranks. Together we should stand up to it if Euro-centrism and racism is to truly be challenged in modernity.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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