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1 Billion Chinese. 1 Jew. So Many Questions.

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

One month ago, I returned from China, where I was the guest of the Guilford and Diane Glazer Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies at Nanjing University. The Glazers are not the only Jewish philanthropic connection — many American Jews have made commitments in support of China’s ten academic centers of Jewish study. Yes, you read that right — there are no less than ten centers for studying Judaism in China.

The Chinese have a fascination with Jews, you see. It’s partly because of mythologies related to perceived notions of “Jewish political influence” in America, but it’s also connected to the significance of Jews in Western history and culture. As the “other” great ancient civilization, Jews enjoy a level of respect and admiration among the Chinese.

My hosts at Nanjing made a conscious effort to expose me to scholars and students not only at that university but also at two other higher educational centers. Over a 12-day visit, I was invited to offer presentations on everything from the Israel-Diaspora partnership to the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. My audiences included Jewish studies majors, academic officials and students from an array of disciplines, as well as ordinary Chinese citizens simply interested in the material.

So what did the Chinese want to learn about Jews in the United States? They were mostly focused on these questions: Why did such a community within the U.S. feel it important, even essential, to be politically engaged? Why did American Jews have a particular connection to Jews worldwide and especially to the State of Israel? What did Jewish peoplehood represent, and how did Jews maintain their connections across continents?

I reminded my listeners that while China may not have been able to maintain its sense of national identity throughout its long and disruptive history, the idea of a people who shared a common connection to its “motherland” was never questioned among them. For Jews, a sense of national connection to our historic homeland represented a totally new political reality. In the 20th century, Jews relearned the language and tools of political power, experiencing for the first time in 2000 years what it means to have a state.

In the Q&A sessions that followed each of my lectures, students posed fascinating questions. More than once, I heard a student begin his or her inquiry by declaring, “Jews in America are influential and powerful!” When you probe deeper, you realize that the Chinese admire individuals and groups who possess such qualities. Rather than seeing money and power as problematic, they applaud these traits as proof of success.

My Chinese students struggled to understand the idea of communal debate and the notion of dissent, concepts foreign to their understanding of civic engagement or politics. They also seemed mystified as to why the U.S. had created a “special relationship” with the State of Israel, when American interests in the region encompassed broad priorities. Explaining the concept of a “special relationship,” while at the same time noting the complex nature of American foreign policy interests in the Middle East, was especially challenging.

It was essential for me to introduce to my audiences original documents like the Balfour Declaration, as a way to demonstrate how you can “read into” policy materials, uncovering the intentions or hidden meanings behind specific statements. The Chinese are often unable to access these items because their government systematically blocks certain websites and networks.

When learning about the American Jewish community and its role in this nation’s social fabric, the Chinese seemed confused — but definitely curious — about such notions as “non profit” organizations, “charitable giving” and “minority rights.” These concepts represented a totally different model of social organizing, contrasting radically with the Communist framework of centralized authority.

Later, I met with Chinese graduate students studying American foreign policy in the Middle East and the particular role that American Jewish organizations have played in shaping a pro-Israel agenda. Other students are focusing their attention on Jewish organizations and their roles in Jewish life and American society at large; a comparative analysis of biblical ideas with Chinese Confucian principles; and early Zionist ideology as compared to modern Chinese political thinking.

Many of the students I encountered had already returned from semester abroad programs in Israel or the U.S., with others set to travel to these destinations in the next few years. These connections provide important links to the outside world, often not available to Chinese students.

The attention on China today is not lost on the Israeli government or its educational, industrial and business sectors. China is Israel’s third most important trading partner, where the two nations enjoy a robust $10 billion exchange in goods and services. More than 100 Israeli business and industrial institutions operate within China, while several of the country’s universities have developed agreements with their counterparts in China involving joint research ventures along with student and faculty exchange programs.

Here in the U.S., the American Jewish Committee, Simon Wiesenthal Center and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, among others, have targeted China as part of their international portfolios.

China’s story will increasingly have a Jewish connection, as that nation’s role increases within the world and as Jews and Chinese travel, study and expand their cultural and economic ties.

Dr. Steven Windmueller recently retired as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

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