When five Jewish communal leaders returned last week from their all-expenses-paid five-day trip to Taiwan, they were exhausted from the 24-hour flight but laden with exotic gifts.
At one meeting with high-ranking Taiwanese officials, the delegates received tea-cups, at another colorful ties were distributed.
“The whole time I was thinking: Hello, am I allowed to keep this, or will I go to prison?” joked Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. He was joined by representatives of four other influential Jewish groups: Hadassah, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, National Committee for Labor Israel and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The Asian hosts never asked for anything from their Jewish guests in return for all the gifts and hospitality — just that the delegates listen to the story of Taiwan. “There was no sense of quid pro quo,” said Jerry Goodman, who was representing the National Committee for Labor Israel. “I just saw it as an educational venture.”
Klein, however, had a different take on Taiwan’s willingness to foot the bill: “They believed that we are influential people who will spread the word about their country and their society.”
One Taiwanese official said as much in an interview with the Forward.
“We think they are a very important group in bettering the understanding between Taiwan and America,” said Anne Hung, who works in the congressional liaison office of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, the country’s de facto embassy in the United States. “They have great influence, as everyone knows.”
Many countries, including Israel and the United States, have been unwilling to establish formal ties with Taipei out of a general fear of antagonizing China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province that should be reunited with the mainland. So the Taiwanese have fallen back on aggressively cultivating unofficial relationships like the one with the American Jewish community.
“For Taiwan, it’s always a question of finding anyone in the world who will pay attention to them,” said Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Taiwanese-American relations. “They simply appreciate any trade or friendly relationships.”
Former congressman Steve Solarz, who helped plan the Jewish delegation for Taiwan’s government, will soon assist in assembling a group of African-American leaders to make the trip. But the Taiwanese have been particularly interested in Jewish advocacy groups. Just last February, the government brought over a group of Jewish political leaders, including Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council and Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
During the recent visit, participants said, Taiwanese officials frequently complimented Israel, with one interlocutor insisting: “The Jews are very smart — you come from Einstein.”
The Jewish delegation was granted access to the highest rungs of the Taiwanese government. Participants had a long meeting with the vice president, Annette Hsiu-lien Lu; during a powwow with the country’s top generals, the delegation was briefed on the security situation with China.
“It was a revelation, since I knew hardly anything about Taiwan,” said Renee Albert, Hadassah’s representative at the United Nations.
In meetings with the Jewish delegates, Taiwanese officials played up the parallels between Taiwan and Israel, describing both as small, economically successful countries surrounded by threats (in Taiwan’s case, 496 Chinese missiles aimed directly at it).
Participants said that these analogies were offered in the name of improving ties between Israel and Taiwan.
Questions regarding Israel, however, were generally overshadowed by discussions on American support for Taiwan — the central focus of Taiwanese diplomacy.
In planning the trip for Taiwan, Solarz said, the hope was that “the delegates will return not only with a better understanding, but also with more sympathy and support of continued American backing of Taiwan.”
In pursuit of this strategy, delegation members said, the Taiwanese seemed to be operating on the assumption that Jews wield disproportionate power in America.
Upon his return to America last week, Klein told the Forward that he was inclined to support the Taiwanese cause.
“Where I can, I will try to promote better trade and relations with Taiwan,” said Klein, who repeatedly urged his hosts to move their diplomatic office in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Several of Klein’s fellow travelers, however, said that they did not get drawn into talk of policy change, and denied suggestions that the trip would have any effect on the actions and decisions of their organizations.
“This is not on the agenda of pro-Israel groups, and it’s not on the agenda of American Jews,” said Goodman. “It would be inappropriate for this to change that.”
Albert would only say: “We’re not advocating for anyone besides Israel.”
In addition to the sessions on politics and history, the trip also featured scheduled stops at the Tittot Glass Art Museum and Taipei’s luxurious 12-story mall.
As the Jewish visitors toured around, they realized that they were not the only Americans being given the royal tour of Taipei. Coming out of a handicrafts market, they ran into former New York congressman Ben Gilman and Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, who was there on a trip sponsored by the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association, a non-governmental organization that works to improve Taiwan’s relations with other countries. While on another shopping venture, to order custom-made suits, the Jewish delegates found the receipt book filled with names of American politicians.
The most fortuitous encounter, however, came as the Jewish representatives were leaving their meeting with the Taiwanese vice president. At that moment, Chabot and the rest of his delegation were walking in and greeted the Jewish visitors by their first names.
“The vice president was really impressed,” Klein quipped. “She was clearly thinking, ‘Boy, I brought the right guy — he knows everybody.’”