Skip To Content
We’ve Taken Down the Forward Paywall: An Open Letter to Our ReadersRead Now

Hebrew-Speaking Chinese Look West to Zion

A few months ago I got into an elevator in one of the new glass towers that dot Beijing’s Central Business District, joining two Chinese men and a foreigner for the ride down to the lobby. As we descended, the three men began talking, and for a second I thought my ears were deceiving me, as the language they were speaking was Hebrew. I turned around in shock, and one of the Chinese, seeing the look of surprise on my face, asked me, “Ata midaber ivrit?” (“Do you speak Hebrew?”).

“Yes,” I responded in that language, “but I didn’t expect to hear Chinese speak Hebrew in China.” He chuckled and then told me that he had spent four years working as an agricultural laborer on a moshav not far from Haifa. It was there that he had picked up the language. His friend had a similar story. They had returned to China a year ago, when their Israeli work visas expired. Despite the long hours and hard labor on the farms, they wanted to return to Israel, but could not afford the thousands of dollars required for visa permits. “Chaval,” he said. “It’s a pity.”

As Israelis pour into Beijing for the Olympic Games, and more Chinese tourists are set to make the trip to Israel, following a joint agreement signed by the two countries last year, those thousands of Chinese who for years have headed to the Jewish state seeking work in agriculture and construction are getting little recognition for their contribution to friendly Sino-Israeli relations.

When I volunteered for the Tel Aviv-based labor-rights organization Kav La’Oved, known in English as The Worker’s Hotline, a few years ago, I met Chinese who were suffering in silence from abuse, as well as illegal wage and passport confiscation at the hands of Israeli employers. Many feared deportation for fleeing such conditions, or because the Israeli government thought they were in the country illegally. While not always the case, it appears that some Chinese workers in Israel are still trapped by these problems.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.