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Building Israel’s bridges to China on common ground

Israel and China's marked commonalities can lay the ground for developing strong ties

The establishment of official diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and the State of Israel in January 1992 linked, for the first time in modern history, two of the world’s oldest and most influential civilizations. After several decades of vacillating indifference and hostility defined by China’s strong relationship with the Arab world, the opening of embassies in Beijing and Tel Aviv marked the potential for a new era of Sino-Israeli collaboration, dialogue, and partnership. After two decades, however, Israel faces great challenges in dealing with China. The Chinese nation at large still knows very little about Israel despite generally friendly relations between governments. With the recent uprisings in the Middle East and changes to the world economy, Israel needs Beijing’s assistance, including the support of Chinese public opinion, in dealing with its numerous threats and opportunities.

While the differences between China and Israel are easy to spot, it is their numerous similarities that can lay the groundwork for a long-term mutually beneficial relationship. Despite all that separates them, China, a rising global superpower with a population of over one billion, and Israel, a regional Middle Eastern power with a population of just 7.5 million, share parallel historical narratives, similar approaches to society-building, and a strong emphasis on cultural identity. While not readily apparent, this common ground between China and Israel could serve as a strong base on which to build bridges between Asia’s furthest neighbors, thereby bringing about a truly unique friendship.

Rising from the tragedy of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the creation of the People’s Republic of China parallels that of the State of Israel, which came into being despite the devastation caused by the Holocaust during the Second World War. Although fought under very different circumstances, the atrocities committed against the Chinese by imperial Japan during their war of expansion have been likened to an “Asian Holocaust,” similar to what happened under German rule in Europe. In both cases, the Japanese and the Germans utilized mass killings, human experimentation, and forced labor to create unimaginable suffering. In both cases, however, the victims prevailed. In fact, both China and Israel came into being after bloody civil wars that saw the dominance of the Communists over the Nationalists in mainland China and the Jewish Zionists over the Arabs in mandatory Palestine. Both represent underdog victories against strong, well-prepared opponents.

Following Israel’s independence in 1948 and China’s independence in 1949, each nation used national pride as a tool for building a strong, cohesive society. Although very different in terms of style, the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Chairman Mao Zedong unified their respective nations around a common cause: Israel as the national Jewish homeland free of institutionalized anti-Semitism and China as a place where the masses could revolt against established discriminatory institutions. In order to contribute to the success of their nascent states, average citizens lived and worked on kibbutzim in Israel and people’s communes in China. In addition, the development of the Israel Defense Forces and the People’s Liberation Army served as strong sources of national pride that helped solidify Israel’s Jewish/Zionist identity and China’s revolutionary/communist identity. This legacy of state building has resulted in proud societies that have gradually shifted away from socialism and communism and towards booming, successful free-market systems.

Culture also links the values of China and Israel, as both nations place longstanding importance on rituals, collective memories, and the restoration of their respective tongues: Simplified Chinese and Modern Hebrew. The heritage of both the Chinese and the Jews is strongly fixed in the past, with memories of China’s dynastic periods and Israel’s ancient kingdoms alive in present-day rituals. For example, dragon dances on the Chinese New Year and the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah have been performed for thousands of years, transcending time and spanning the generations. In addition, efforts to simplify the Chinese language and restore the Hebrew language have breathed new life into the study of cultural texts written by cherished historical philosophers, like Confucius and Maimonides.

Although there is plenty of common ground between the Chinese and the Israelis, few organizations utilize this to develop the kind of cross-cultural understanding that would help build bridges between Beijing and Jerusalem. In the years immediately preceding the official establishment of diplomatic relations, a Center of Israel Studies was set up in Shanghai in 1989 to promote collaboration and dialogue between the peoples of China and Israel. In addition, the PRC surprised Israeli officials by requesting permission to send Chinese students to learn Hebrew in the early 1990s. This was followed by a newly opened mission of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Beijing and a similar mission of Luxingshe, the China National Travel Service, set up in Tel Aviv. Since both sides established official diplomatic relations, however, commercial and military ties have taken all priority over cultural understanding. While this has no doubt been mutually beneficial, it has not fostered the kind of bridges that link Israel with the United States of America or Canada, for example.

Mitigating the influence of China’s 20-plus Arab allies is a challenge Israel must be willing to take on in the fight for Chinese support. Besides the kinds of necessary non-profit and academic institutions that contribute to greater cross-cultural understanding, Israel has a great resource in its Center for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV). Through programs run by MASHAV, thousands of Chinese trainees have attended courses in China and Israel to learn about better development practices. One of its greatest accomplishments has been the construction of three model farms for agriculture training in China. Furthering these mutually beneficial partnerships and showing the Chinese that Israeli ingenuity can better their lives and vice versa has the potential to build the strongest of bridges between nations that place a high importance on collective knowledge and know-how.

While the State of Israel managed quite successfully without official ties to the People’s Republic of China for over 40 years, today, Beijing’s clout in the international arena is too important for Israel to overlook. As Israel struggles with its precarious political situation in a rapidly changing world, China is one of the few states that can provide the necessary support to ensure stability, if not an eventual solution, to the problems in the volatile Middle East. To benefit from such involvement, Israel needs to show the Chinese just how many similarities they share. If done successfully, the bridges that span between Beijing and Jerusalem will rise high and strong, invulnerable from the enemies of Israel that seek to prevent such paths.

About the Author
Robert Pines, a Maryland native, is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. He has interned with a number of organizations promoting Jewish and Israel advocacy. In fall 2011, he spent a semester at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.