Monday, November 16, 2009
The Chinese, the Jews and Israel
One refreshing aspect about China in comparison to the West (or of course the Middle East) is that practically no one has any strong preconceived ideas about the state of Israel and its conflict with the Arab world. Well educated Chinese people have usually heard about the conflict, in my experience, but their notions on it tend to be vague. Most of them feel about as strongly about the Arab-Israeli conflict as most Westeners do about the Taiwan issue or the civil war in Sri Lanka, in other words not at all. Last year, during the brief Israeli offensive in Gaza, it made a change to be in a country where practically everyone was completely indifferent, and just saw the event as a far away war which is no concern of theirs. The Holocaust and the whole history of the Jews (犹太人or Youtairen in Chinese) also don't elicit particularly strong feelings in most Chinese people, who only know about these things in the vaguest terms. Although there have been some Jewish communities in China in the past (in the photo you can see some Jews from Kaifeng, Henan, from the later 19th or early 20th century), they have always been few and far between, and their influence on Chinese history has been virtually none. Furthermore, none of these traditional communities have survived until this day, since they have all integrated into mainstream Chinese culture (perhaps the lack of persecution was the reason for their integration?).
Of course, the Chinese government officially embraced "Third World solidarity" and anti-imperialism in the past, and until the 1980s it had no relations with Israel and officially supported the PLO (even though Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1948, the favour was not returned). However it never made a big thing of the Palestinian cause, which is simply too far from the concerns and the history of the Chinese. And in any case nowadays the whole ideology of international anti-imperialism has fallen out of fashion in China as well. In 1992, China and Israel established diplomatic ties, and the two countries now enjoy a fruitful economic and military relationship.
Although most Chinese people have no preconceived notions about Israel, they do seem to have one about Jews: they are very intelligent. Whenever I have mentioned to a Chinese person that I have Jewish origins on my mothers side, they usuallly look very pleased and say something like: "oh, that's good, the Jews are very intelligent." Educated Chinese people have usually heard that in the West there are masses of famous Jews in every field, and that this clearly points to some superior intelligence they have. (of course, there must be hundreds of millions of Chinese people who have never heard of the Jews at all, but that is another point). I remember that the first time I was in China, I was having a meal with a group of Chinese accademics in the city of Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province. At some point I asked them if they had any opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of them said: "yes, I support Israel, because I have heard that the Jews are very intelligent."
Of course the idea that Jews are automatically "very intelligent" which many Chinese seem to have is also a kind of prejudice, but at least it is a positive one, and there do not seem to be any negative stereotypes about Jews circulating, which makes a nice change from Europe. The traditional Chinese respect for education and hard work means that the Jews' achievements are seen with respect, rather than suspicion. One Chinese girl did once tell me that "the Jews are very clever, and so they are very succesful in science, politics and business", but she didn't seem to attach any negative feelings towards being succesful in business, and this was only one of a list of things which the Jews are supposedly good at. I actualy feel that Jewish communities and Chinese ones around the world have quite a lot in common (although size is of course not one of them. There are more people in the Beijing municipality than Jews in the world). The position of the Chinese communities in South-East Asia, succesful but mistrusted and with no political clout, can't help but remind me of some Jewish communities of the past.
Who knows, in the unlikely event that Jews feel unwelcome in the West again, perhaps China and Asia might become a new haven for them, the more accepting, forward-looking places where the Jews could feel at home.