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Beating Stereotypes in China

Three percent of all Americans are Jews. They have left themselves to be a minority. Although they are very clever and have much control over America, it is still considered almost impossible that a Jew could be elected President of the United States, because of Protestant prejudice that they are too sneaky…

The sentences above come from “A Survey of America and Britain,” a popular textbook in Chinese universities. The passage could be considered amusing if not for the fact that China is a rising world power.

I ran across “A Survey of America and Britain” while serving with my wife as a Peace Corps volunteer in China. We taught at Guizhou University, the largest school in a province of roughly 40 million people. My wife was required to use the text when she taught a sophomore-level course on Western culture. The paragraph above is the sum of its commentary on Jews in America.

This is not to say that the Chinese have no interest in Jews. On the contrary — whenever I told colleagues or students that I was Jewish, they were quick to praise me for sharing something in common with Karl Marx. “Comrade Marx was the greatest Jew,” my school’s vice-dean told me in a typical comment. “I hope you can teach us more about this topic.”

Whenever the subject of Jews came up at Guizhou University, Marx was mentioned first. The second thing mentioned was usually money. Last April, a student who had chosen the English name Jackie (in honor of the kung fu film star Jackie Chan) came to my office. He wanted my advice. “You must be very clever,” he said with a big smile, “because Einstein was also a Jew.” Jackie was short, pudgy and exceedingly polite. I hoped to create a teachable moment, though my ineffectual reply began with, “Believe me, I’m not very clever.”

Jackie proceeded to ask me if I had ever heard of the Talmud. “Fantastic!” I thought with surprise. “This will actually be a substantive conversation.” At that moment, Jackie reached into his backpack and pulled out a book he told me was a runaway bestseller in China. He translated the title for me: “Secrets from the Talmud: How to Get Rich Like a Jew.”

“Can you teach me how to be rich,” he asked as he caressed the cover of the book, “like the famous Jews I have read about, Rockefeller and Bill Gates?”

The textbook, the request from my vice-dean and my meeting with Jackie fell on the amusing — rather than threatening — side of ignorance. The community treated me kindly, and I assumed the problem in all of these cases was simply a lack of information. On the basis of this assumption, I prepared an open lecture on Judaism that I hoped would disabuse the community of its misconceptions. On a warm spring evening, I delivered the lecture to about 200 students and teachers. Afterward, I fielded questions from the audience. It was during the question-and-answer session that I moved from being amused to being alarmed.

The first question of the evening set the tone: “Do you support the Israeli imperialist oppression of the Palestinian people?” The question came from a scrawny young man sitting in the back of the room. I was taken aback. What happened to questions about Comrade Marx and the Talmud?

For over an hour, it was more of the same. Everything came back to “imperialist” Israel and China’s sympathy for anyone who stands against “Western aggression.” Student after student stood and, in one way or another, espoused a Manichean view of the world in which America (“the West”) and its satellites (including Israel) exploit and oppress the third world for the sake of profit and power. Jackie summed things up near the end of the lecture: “China has never oppressed anyone, so we always seek peace. That is why we support the Palestinian people.”

When the lecture ended and the students filed out, I slumped in my chair. I was struck with the realization that while my students live with open markets, they also lived with closed history. Chinese schools have succeeded in pounding home a narrow, inaccurate, slogan-filled summary of the 20th century. Thus, while my students exhibited a total lack of commitment to socialist economic policies, they unfailingly expressed a rigidly Maoist historical narrative.

We should be concerned about what China’s kids are learning. When they run Beijing, it is likely that China will be a superpower. It would be one thing if they merely thought Jews were clever and good at making money; it is quite another when they are being taught that Israel is — by definition — an imperialist aggressor. This is particularly troublesome since China — spurred by its voracious appetite for oil — is playing an increasingly large role in the Middle East.

Not all, however, is bleak. A small but growing group of Chinese scholars now focus on Judaic studies. American Jews should do what they can to support the work of these scholars, as well as other outreach programs. In doing so, we can help the Chinese learn something about Jews beyond the shibboleths they currently find in their textbooks.

Mike Levy is a freelance writer who served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2005 to 2007. He is currently working on a memoir about the experience.


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