It is fitting that Jews should speak up against injustice, whoever its victims may be, and rise to their defense. With a history that includes centuries of religious persecution, Hitler’s Final Solution and repeated assaults on the State of Israel, Jews have a special affinity for the victims of prejudice and genocidal violence.
Lately, though, rightful concerns about Darfur and Tibet have given rise to a fast-growing campaign of prejudice — with a few well-known Jews in the vanguard — that singles out Chinese policies for criticism and threatens to derail China’s Olympic dream in retaliation.
A wellspring of anti-Chinese sentiment is being stoked by ill-informed attacks by politicians on the campaign trail, sanctimonious denunciations by celebrities and mass demonstrations along the path of the Olympic torch. Not only are such efforts of dubious effectiveness in solving the problems at hand, they are outright counter-productive, morally questionable and, from a Jewish standpoint, strategically suicidal.
In targeting China, Jewish critics are also perpetrating against Beijing the very kind of fear-mongering of which the Jewish people themselves have all too often been victim.
Take, for example, the protracted, self-congratulatory and ultimately ineffective movement for peace in Darfur. Jewish personalities and organizations, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the American Jewish World Service, figure prominently in the campaign. In March, director Steven Spielberg, revered in China for his film “Schindler’s List,” resigned as artistic advisor to the upcoming Olympic Games to protest Chinese involvement in Sudan.
The Save Darfur campaign has increasingly identified China’s oil stake in Sudan, as well as its trade, diplomatic — and, yes — past military ties with Khartoum as key factors facilitating the atrocities of the Janjaweed militia. Undoubtedly, Beijing holds a position of influence in the country, and as such can be part of a solution to the tragedy.
But in the last 16 months or so China has come a long way, deeply amending its Darfur and Sudan policy and leaning on Khartoum to accept peacekeepers — long before Mia Farrow started campaigning on the issue.
And let’s not forget that China is far from Khartoum’s only friend. India, a close ally of Washington, has almost as much at stake in Sudan as China does. Rarely, though, is Delhi targeted by those trying to help Darfur.
Moscow, for its part, is a major military supplier. And last year Japan emerged as a major importer of Sudanese oil. It also helps that Khartoum’s African neighbors, as well as Arab and Muslim allies like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Darfur, or even provide active support to the government. How can we expect China to solve Darfur alone when the others get a free pass?
In short, to pillory China alone for the horrors in Darfur is naive, ill informed and disingenuous.
The knee-jerk outrage to recent reports of Chinese repression in Tibet has been equally ill advised. Elie Wiesel, perhaps the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor, got 25 fellow Nobel laureates to join him in a forceful condemnation of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown.
Such humiliating attacks on China on behalf of the Dalai Lama, however, may backfire. Senior Chinese policymakers reportedly are discussing whether they have given Tibetan Buddhism too much freedom.
Never mind the television footage of violent Tibetan assaults on ethnic Chinese and their properties, or the fact the Dalai Lama appeared to have little if any control — Chinese allegations to the contrary not withstanding — over the demonstrators. What really seems to bother those in the West agitating for a free Tibet is the “cultural genocide” they and the Dalai Lama himself accuse Beijing of carrying out.
Official discomfort with religion is widespread in China, and is not specifically targeted at Tibetan Buddhism, which has consistently enjoyed much more freedom and protection than, for example, Christianity and Islam. And while China’s crackdown on media coverage of the unrest clearly is a concern, so is the lack of press freedom in China in general.
Actually, the main threat to Tibetan culture may come from its exposure to the winds of modernity, not from Chinese policies.
Demonizing China will not achieve much in Tibet and Darfur. But it is an irritant that could cloud our relationship with a great power — one that in its 5,000 years of history has never showed an ounce of antisemitism.
Jewish expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment and threats to derail the Olympics have not escaped Beijing’s notice. A paper just released by a Chinese academic institute identifies American Jewish organizations as being among the main culprits in the anti-Chinese part of the Darfur campaign in the United States. Meanwhile, a new book blaming Jews for China’s problems with the yuan is selling like hotcakes.
It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if Jews came to be seen as an enemy of Beijing. China is today an economic powerhouse, and its diplomatic clout is quickly growing. Furthermore, it has the ability to play a major role in the Middle East, where to date its foreign policy has been remarkably balanced and much friendlier toward Israel than is generally recognized.
The potential cost of anti-Chinese sentiment among American Jews is dear indeed. But it is not just from a realpolitik standpoint that the Darfur and Tibet campaigns are misguided.
Under a veneer of political correctness, such efforts are threatening to become a major moral failure on our part. For all the obvious differences between China and the Jewish people, it is hard not to notice the similarities between today’s anti-Chinese feeling and the antisemitism that first emerged in the late 19th century, when Western Jews threatened Christian domination by moving into positions of power.
Our insistence on holding China to higher standards than other countries reflects our concerns about how its rise is reshaping our world and challenging Western supremacy. Outrage at Chinese policies is in style and uncontroversial because it gives those anxieties — about losing jobs, about Chinese takeovers of Western companies, about China’s competition with the West for scarce energy resources — a respectable cover.
As a rising power with roots as deep as ours, China has a role to play for the good, and it is open to influence if it is not publicly insulted. We would do well not to try to stifle China’s rise or seek to disrupt its cherished Olympics.
Screaming at China may be a great way to feel good about ourselves or get political mileage, but it is not going to get us anywhere on Darfur or Tibet. Not all is perfect about China, and there is no point in denying it. But neither should we mindlessly howl with the anti-Chinese wolves.
Shalom Solomon Wald is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem. Antoine Halff, an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, is an energy analyst in New York.