Ethical Zionism: It’s Time to Talk about China

Uighur protesters pictured in 2009 wield the ID cards of detained relatives. (Getty Images)

This article will continue my series on the theory of Ethical Zionism and its practical applications in Israeli foreign policy.

During the Obama years, with cracks appearing in the ostensibly water-tight relationship between Israel and the US, Prime Minister Netanyahu turned to a new potential ally in the East – one that was sure to get the US administration’s attention. Courting the People’s Republic of China became a centerpiece of Bibi’s foreign policy, reflecting his chosen path of pragmatic opportunism for the Jewish State in a more transigent, Post-Cold-War-era world, one filled with new and unexplored avenues for expansion. China served the dual purpose of opening up a new global market to Israel, and pressuring the State Department to reconsider its seeming ambivalence toward Israeli interests.

Years later, the State Department has descended into chaos, and China remains a central figure in Israeli foreign policy. Commercial ties between the two countries have boomed, with trade up 40% from 2014 to 2018. Israel and China have engaged in new joint projects and initiatives, including the China-Israel Innovative Comprehensive Partnership in 2017, and the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation in 2018. Negotiations are in earnest for the drafting of a bilateral free-trade agreement. And Chinese firms are participating in Israeli infrastructure tenders.

The change has not signaled a complete thaw in relations between the two countries. While there have been covert relations between Jerusalem and Beijing for many years, China’s stance in the diplomatic arena continues to veer between neutral and hostile. China continues to join Syria and Iran in supporting UN resolutions targeting the Jewish State, including a 2017 resolution calling on the US to rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On the other hand, China skipped a recent Security Council vote to condemn Assad’s chemical attacks in Syria – which, in years gone by, would have been met with a swift veto by the People’s Republic. And Bibi was met with a markedly warm welcome upon his state visit to Beijing in 2017. Last year, Bibi heralded a visit to Jerusalem by China’s vice-premier as “the most important visit by a Chinese leader in the last 18 years.” “It’s a sign of our growing friendship,” said Netanyahu. “The fact that the Vice President of China came to Israel at my invitation for the Prime Minister’s Innovation Conference is a tremendous compliment to Israel and a reflection of the growing ties between China and Israel.”

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Last week in Herzliya, a panel of Israeli and Chinese officials met to publically discuss issues arising from the upsurge in relations between Israel and China. I had the privilege of attending the event. The event focused almost entirely on the issue of engaging with China without overly antagonizing our American allies. That is, until former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy approached the podium, and leveled whithering criticism against the People’s Republic for its complicity in North Korea’s role in nuclear proliferation among some of Israel’s deadliest enemies.

It was an awkward moment that seemed to very nearly jar the audience back into a glimpse, if only fleeting, of reality. Then the smiles and handshakes returned.

As I left the conference, I could not help reflecting more on what was not said, than what was said. And how representative that seems to have become of how most of the world interacts with China.

There are many rogue and murderous regimes that the international community tends to shy away from. It goes without saying that most countries show little hesitation before condemning Israel for its misdeeds, real or perceived. The world has even shown a certain willingness to mobilize, in some instances, when serious concerns arise in respect of state violations of human rights – such as in the cases of Somalia, Libya and others. Whether such interventions are justified in any particular case merits speculation. But what seems to unite all parties is the implicit understanding that such accountability does not extend to the powerful.

This arrangement is as systemic as it is intractable. Security Council vetos provide the framework whereby the world’s superpowers are immune, de facto, to interference by international regulators. So it has come to pass that the only bodies competent to try the offenses of these superpowers remain the court of public opinion, and the shifting alliances that govern today’s balance, as yesteryear’s, of mutually assured destruction. And indeed, over the past decades and to this day, we have seen these great powers undeterred from committing the most inhumane crimes in their pursuit of national interests. China has been no exception to this phenomenon. On the contrary – it bears the standard.

The Chinese are among the most ancient civilizations on the face of the Earth. Though steeped in millennia of rich history and tradition, the last two centuries saw the collapse of the country’s old dynasties, the pillaging of the empire by the European colonial powers – and ultimately, the seizure of the Chinese heartland by a brutal revolutionary dictatorship.

Among the great killer-states of the 20th century, Mao Zedong’s communist China quickly rose through the ranks to eclipse Hitler, Tojo and Stalin. While estimates vary, the purges and reorganizations of the People’s Republic are said to have claimed the lives of between 40-80 million Chinese citizens through murderous policy initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and others. Public actions that shocked the world – such as the collapse of the student protest at Tiananmen Square – account for only a tiny fraction of the repressions undertaken by the regime.

While the large-scale purges have come and gone, we should labor under no delusion that the resurgent, economic powerhouse of modern-day China has somehow recanted its history of crime – or gone out of the business, for that matter. In organizing this article, I frequently found myself remarking to colleagues that my greatest difficulty was not in attempting to find evidence of ongoing Chinese atrocities – but in performing the necessary triage among them.

In the last five years, we have seen the People’s Republic round up hundreds of thousands – potentially millions – of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, “disappearing” them into an elaborate system of concentration camps in the country’s remotest region. We have seen the oppression and neglect that have been visited on the families and communities of those disappeared victims. The scenes are a grim and continuous parade of human suffering and abuse.

We have seen credible reports of wide-scale organ harvesting of prisoners. We have seen belligerent attempts to violate the sovereignty of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the brutal suppression of protests in connection therewith. All of these atrocities serve only to downplay the severity of Beijing’s domestic policies, which preside over a strictly regimented and controlled society that, even now, refuses to recognize and grant basic human rights and freedoms to its citizens.

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Together, these crimes paint a picture of one of the most brutal autocratic regimes in human history. But you wouldn’t know it from a review of their diplomatic reception. From Washington to Jerusalem, there seems to be a clear understanding that China is too powerful – and too indispensable – to challenge, no matter its wrongdoings. And, to be honest, that argument holds significant weight. We can only estimate, after so many years of interaction, the full influence of Chinese trade and projection of power on our wider economy, and the potential impact that any adverse actions on the part of the Chinese government could have on it. It is telling how, aside from Mr. Helevy’s brief moment of candor, in a panel devoted to issues of Sino-Israeli cooperation, not one question was raised about the human-rights record of one of the world’s most notorious abusers.

So where does this leave us? Here I return to my thesis of Ethical Zionism, and the relative moral obligation incumbent upon us, as Israelis, as Jews and as human beings, to challenge human-rights abuses wherever they arise. For those who missed out, I’ll paraphrase: I have previously discussed the concept of Zionism as an ideology stemming from, and subject to, the dictates of Kantian ethics. Under this theory, our storied history has demonstrated to us that there is a mutual human interest – and, consequentially, a categorical imperative – to counteract atrocities, even those occurring beyond our borders. In the further development of this thesis, I discussed how this concept interacts with the State’s obligation toward its own citizens, giving rise to a relative obligation to help other peoples, with said obligation bearing an inverse relationship to the cost that intervention would incur to the State’s own citizens. At the time, we explored the example of Gaza’s Christian population: A modest congregation in urgent need of assistance, in respect of whom I argued that Israel bore an immediate moral obligation to intervene. This has yet to occur, and remains of dire importance, as the fate of such a small population can be sealed at a moment’s notice.

Now, pursuant to our above review, we can present the People’s Republic of China as the inverse example for applying this moral formula. Compared to the plight of Gaza’s Christians, it could be said that Israel has very little power, if any, to assist the victims of Chinese oppression, and that the cost that could be incurred to Israeli citizens on account of any sort of intervention would almost certainly be significant.

Does this exempt us from taking action? Have we license to bow to the colloquial wisdom that the cost of attempting to hold China accountable for its crimes is simply too great a burden for our small country to bear?

As always, and in keeping with Rawl’s conception of the “Veil of Ignorance,” we must consider this question from the standpoint of the lowest common denominator – in this case, the victims currently languishing in China’s expansive concentration camp network. It is not a difficult position for us, as Jews, to conceive of. Nor is it difficult to reach the conclusion that it is our express interest, as Zionists and human beings, that no such exemption be granted to any party of their relative moral obligation toward those victims, if and to the extent that some action remains in their power to effect. This means that, all reservations notwithstanding, the State of Israel has a moral obligation to act in the face of China’s many infractions. The only question is, how?

This may be a question for the think-tanks and policymakers. It would take an expert on the history of China’s foreign policy maneuvering to understand exactly the ways in which the People’s Republic would be likely to retaliate against any perceived slight on our part. Similarly, it would take a trade expert, and perhaps a team of financial specialists, to then calculate precisely the impact that such retaliation would have on our economy and international standing. But, ultimately, these are just numbers, and hidden somewhere among them there is an optimal value describing precisely what action Israel could reasonably take in the face of Chinese human-rights abuses without incurring too great a cost to its own citizens. Certainly, this is a discussion that must be held, and once it is held, its conclusions must be implemented. This is a categorical imperative, a moral obligation on us, as individuals, and on the society that we represent. It cannot and must not be denied.

In response to those who would protest the extent of our economic dependence on China, I should note how starkly at odds such an argument is with the entire vision of Zionism. Of what meaning, after all, is our independence and sovereignty, if we are really to consider ourselves too dependent on the dictates of the global powers to so much as determine the course of our own foreign policy? There are constraints, of course, but it is a far cry from “constraints” to subordination. No, our sovereignty is a privilege, a privilege that we have dearly paid for; and with that privilege comes the duty to wield it responsibly, to the best of our discretion. We do not have the luxury of condemning circumstance or external pressures for our own moral failings.

It may amount to as little as a public condemnation, an expression of deep concern, an investigation; or it may demand a broader reexamination of our strategy of increasing engagement with China. I do not presume to have the precise answer in front of me. But I do know that, whatever that answer may be, it would be unconscionable of us to ignore it. Not if we hope to consider ourselves as proud and ethical Zionists. We must ferret it out, we must do it justice, and we will bear the costs, such as they may be. As the Talmud tells us, regarding the Torah: “You need not complete the work, but neither are you free to shirk it.” So, too, is the labor of morality. The State of Israel has an obligation to make its voice heard, if only so that we should not be yet another generation of complacent fools, quietly complicit in murder.

I would like to thank Divora Sarafraz for her contributions to this article.

About the Author
I was raised in a small Ultra-Orthodox community in Milwaukee, and made Aliya at the age of 18. I volunteered in the IDF and continue to serve in the reserves. Today I work and research in the field of law, while enthusiastically pursuing my hobbies of historical and political research and discourse. I am a husband and father of two. I see it as my civic duty to strengthen and contribute to my society in any way that I can.
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