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Why Jews absolutely should visit China

Rejecting a call to Jewish tourists to boycott China: Do as Israel does and build ties despite differences

What is currently taking place in Darfur is truly a tragedy. And it’s organizations like the Wyman Institute who are leaders in calling attention to that tragedy and its close parallels to that of the Holocaust. However, as harrowing as the situation is in Darfur, I was taken aback by the recent call by Raphael Medoff, head of the Wyman Institute, for Jews to boycott China, in an article entitled “Why Jews Should not Visit China, Regardless of what Israel Does.” In it, he castigates Jewish organizations for conducting Jewish heritage tours to China, which he accuses of being deeply involved with the ‘Darfur Genocide.’ Well, I would like to show here that China is unfairly being singled out by Medoff, that Jewish heritage preservation in China will be severely jeopardized by an unwarranted boycott, and that, in fact, a Jewish heritage trip to China can be a positive multicultural experience.

In his article, Medoff cites a clear precedent of previous Jewish boycotts, namely against Germany during World War II and against Russia during the Cold War. Yet a striking difference exists between the behavior of those countries and that of China. Those were boycotts against countries with governmentally-directed policies of genocide of Jews (Germany) or discrimination towards Jews (Russia). Not only does none of that exist in China, but the exact opposite is true. According to the Anti- Defamation League’s Anti-Semitic index, China has a relatively positive attitude towards Jews in general and, judging by recent Chinese investments in the Israeli economy (especially agritech), great respect for Israel in particular.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu

So if it’s not about some overt act by China against Jews, then what compels Medoff to call for this boycott? For him, it’s a matter of conscience “Jewish values” (Tikun Olam) and therefore, it is unconscionable to help China be a ‘genocide facilitator’ in Darfur. The issue of weapons supply to Darfur is messy, to say the least. While it is true that China supplies rockets to Darfur, it is not the only country guilty of supplying this war zone with weapons. Russia and Belorussia do it as well. And guess what? So does Israel! These are convenient omissions as there are no calls to boycott Russia or Belorussia, and certainly no calls exist to ‘punish’ Israel for its involvement. That being said, I strongly believe it is far from a good idea for Diaspora Jews to protest an offense that China commits, while Israel is guilty of doing the same.

A further testament to China’s questionable moral character is, according to Medoff, the specter of the Tiananmen Square massacres. There is no question that what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a horrible tragedy. It also goes without saying that China might never be democratic, nor ever evolve into an open society. Nevertheless, it is clear that current day China is far different than the China of Tiananmen Square. More importantly, it smacks of desperation when you reach back 25 years into any country’s past in order to hold it accountable by today’s standards for the actions of a previous generation. At what point do you forgive and forget? Another nice Jewish value, by the way.

According to Medoff, China “finances the enemies of Israel.” It is true that China does business with countries who are openly hostile to Israel’s existence, such as Iran. Yet, regardless of that fact, the official policy of Israel is to engage China in every possible way — politically, economically, and socially (especially in the field of tourism). A boycott by Jews on China, as Medoff points out, will have a negligible impact on China’s economy. What he fails to mention is that any form of Chinese boycott on Israel could impact Israel’s economy, as China becomes an important trading partner of Israel — to the tune of $10 billion in trade between Israel and China since the beginning of 2015.

Short-shrifted as well by Medoff is the current policy of nearly every major Jewish organization, such as the World Jewish Congress to develop good relations with China. That is why these organization are organizing Jewish heritage tours in the first place. Cultural heritage trips expose Jews to Chinese culture and vice versa, minimizing prejudices on both sides. These tours are the most effective method to help understand the Jewish contributions to the Chinese narrative which, in turn, helps us understand its overall contribution to our universal cultural heritage. I applaud Jewish organizations such as the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the American Jewish Committee, and Chabad for promoting this cross-cultural initiative. They should be commended, not condemned for following Israel’s lead: China needs to be engaged, not boycotted.

It is no coincidence that there is currently an upsurge of Jewish heritage tours to China. According to the data collected by my organization, the World Jewish Heritage Fund (WJH), China represents an emerging market for Jewish heritage tourism. China is one of many countries that are finally beginning to leverage previously underutilized Jewish heritage assets in order to stimulate the cultural heritage tourism sector of their economy. This development represents a worldwide phenomena taking place in such desperate places as Portugal, Cuba, Belorussia, Egypt and even Iran. However, these new markets are sometimes taking root in countries that are fundamentally undemocratic, virulently anti-Semitic and/or deeply repressive. Trying to establish a ‘Jewish values’ litmus test before one visits an individual country is going to be a very difficult task, at best. And it has to be carefully weighed against the competing ‘Jewish value’ of indirectly aiding and abetting the deterioration of Jewish heritage sites via boycott.

Medoff’s boycott call hopes to fulfill the mission of the Wyman Institute to teach “moral and historical lessons” about the Holocaust and to prevent these atrocities from happening in current day Darfur. As the son of Holocaust survivors myself, the whole issue of genocide and the lessons that can be learned resonates deeply within me whenever it is raised in the media. Unfortunately, as shown above, the lesson here is too vague and too far removed from the source to be of any value. As such, there is little didactic value of tying to connect a boycott of Jewish heritage sites in China to the killings in Darfur. In fact, I would argue the opposite. This is a missed opportunity! There is a great lesson to be taught about the Holocaust when you tell the story of the Shanghai Jewish Quarter, and an even bigger story to be told when you tell the story of the Jews in China.

Harbin New Synagogue, China
Harbin New Synagogue, China — 105 year old synagogue recently reopened

The story of the Jews in China is the story of Judaism itself. The ethnic diversity of the Jews in China can be traced from the Kaifeng Jews of Imperial China, to the Iraqi and Indian Jewish merchants of the 19th and 20th century, and finally to the Ashkenazic Jews who gained refuge in Shanghai during the Holocaust. The lifeline that China threw to save 20,000 Eastern European Jews during this period is now being commemorated in Shanghai with the conservation of the Jewish quarter. It includes the unveiling of a holocaust memorial, the reopening of a Jewish quarter cafe, and the quarter’s recent nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site. These efforts represent a significant investment of millions of dollars to preserve this very important story, one of the few rays of light in very dark period of our history and the world’s. Thus, the story of the Jews in China epitomizes the intersecting narrative of the Mizrahi and Ashkenazic Jewish story, a story of Judaism’s diversity, its prosperity in the face of adversity, and its longevity, against all odds.

Boycotts are a slippery slope. A call for a boycott by Jews of a country, must be done with extreme caution, especially in this day and age of rampant boycotts against Israel. Nary a month goes by without a country, religious organization, trade union, college campus, or city council taking some kind of a vote against Israel. Repercussions on the various stakeholders such as Jewish organizations, Jewish heritage sites and the state of Israel (reverse boycotts) must be taken into consideration. As we saw with the recent bans coming out of Iceland, a thin line exists between boycotting goods originating from the West Bank and those of Israel itself. As we saw with the ban of Matisyahu by a Spanish music festival, an even thinner line exists between boycotting the goods of the Jews in Israel and those of the Jews in the Diaspora.

In effect, a boycott against Jewish heritage tours is a boycott against the Jewish heritage sites themselves. In this case, that of China, these sites and tours happen to be in a country where there are few Jews or Jewish organizations to voice opposition to such an ill-founded idea. It’s certainly a safe target, no local Jews to object. That is why I founded WJH and why I wrote this article. WJH defends these voiceless heritage sites which become collateral damage to misguided ideas. That is also why I recently defended Spain which unjustly was falsely accused of neglecting their Jewish heritage sites. As it has been so aptly proven in Spain, only tourism can give stakeholders — city, provincial and federal- the necessary incentives to make the needed investment to preserve these sites. As I have written elsewhere, Jewish heritage tourism is the only sustainable model of Jewish heritage conservation.

In short, the punishment here does not fit the crime. Medoff, himself, in his writings has cautioned about the excesses of Holocaust and Hitler analogies. It’s trendy to compare every disaster to the Holocaust, every madmen to Hitler. The end result of these bad analogies serves only to trivialize the horror of the Holocaust and the madness of Hitler. Unfortunately, Medoff’s stand against China does not stake a claim here to any moral high ground. Rather, it is just another one of those excesses he has so vigorously railed against, and consequently, just another one of those trivializations.

About the Author
Jack Gottlieb, founder and president of the World Jewish Heritage Fund, is an American businessman highly involved in philanthropic causes, who spends most of his time in Israel these days.
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