Understanding Israeli-Chinese relations

Book review: Past, present and future of ties between the Middle Kingdom and the Jewish State

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of their talks in China in March 2017 (photo credit: ETIENNE OLIVEAU/POOL/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of their talks in China in March 2017
In 1982, I began studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a BA in East Asian studies, focusing on China and the Chinese language. The class was tiny, the department constantly under threat of closure and my classmates and I were often ridiculed. The standard joke was that we were the optimists and the Russian-language students the pessimists. There were no open diplomatic relations between Israel and China and few thought there would be at any time in the near future. We, and the students who followed us, had the last laugh. The two countries signed on a diplomatic agreement 10 years after I started learning the alphabet-less language and extraordinary history of the Middle Kingdom.
Today, there are not only strong diplomatic and economic relations with China, but even young Israeli schoolchildren are learning Chinese (which is not as hard as it looks) and some major tourist sites now have signs in Chinese for the benefit of thousands of visitors.
ARON SHAI, the Shaul N. Eisenberg Professor of East Asian Studies and pro-rector of Tel Aviv University, has packed a tremendous amount of information in a very readable form into this well-researched book. He realizes that the all-important question of the nature of Sino-Israeli relations in the future can only be contemplated with knowledge of the past, which is why the book looks at relations from the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng to the present.
With some 50 years in the field, Shai admits to being an “old-school socialist with updates mandated by time” and this ideology unabashedly colors the way he has studied and presented China. (A lot of pages are dedicated to the relationship between Israel’s Communist Party and China in the early days of the state.) Yet by the end of the book, it is clear that there is an ever-changing relationship.
He notes early on what both cultures have in common: stressing the family and importance of cultural continuity; learning and introspection. The Chinese philosophers hold a special importance for the Chinese in the same way that the rabbinic Sages have for Jews. A particularly astute insight, however, concerns the vastly different way China and the West approach life.
“The European worldview is dichotomous and has distinct categories: good and bad, pure and impure, male and female, light and dark, yes and no. This decisiveness parallels the Israeli language and mentality… But this approach does not fit the Chinese view of life. Chinese culture was inspired by a philosophical and ethical system that is thousands of years old and is based on the concept of yin and yang.” Yin and yang are opposite – light and dark – but they are interdependent.
Shai believes that only by understanding this idea of a sophisticated spectrum “which enfolds opposites in a single embrace” can we make sense of the way modern China can have both a free economic market and a police state controlled by the Communist Party.
THE BOOK is built on three sections, the first being a historical-political analysis; the second (my favorite) the stories of two central figures in the relationship between China and Jews, before the State of Israel; and a more personal summary at the end of the book.
Since the structure enables readers to look at different themes in whatever order they prefer, I’d start with the portraits of the figures of Moshe Cohen, popularly known as Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen and the all-important Shaul Eisenberg, without whom today’s diplomatic and economic relations would not be what they are.
The stories of Two-Gun Cohen are so much larger than life that it is hard to decipher truth from legend. Without demolishing the standing of the most colorful Jewish character to play a role in Chinese history, Shai notes that there are some discrepancies. Born in Poland in 1887, Cohen moved with his large religious family to England as a boy but was so often caught fighting and pickpocketing that after a term in a juvenile institution, he was packed off to Canada. There his life as a petty criminal and gambler continued but he, in a rarity for a Westerner, managed to forge ties with the local Chinese community (some say after he physically prevented a robbery at a Chinese restaurant). He became involved in the Tong Meng Hui organization, Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary group and the rest is an embroidered history in which he became the leader’s personal bodyguard.
He remained a proud Jew and apparently also admired the Zionist movement. There are reports that when representatives of Nationalist China planned to vote in the UN against the partition plan that led to the establishment of Israel, he convinced them instead to abstain.
There is also an interesting chapter devoted to Eisenberg, the self-made business magnate, who cracked the code of how to create ties with the Chinese and held a virtual monopoly on trade contacts between Israel and China, selling agricultural, industrial and military products.
THERE WERE many missed opportunities to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and China. Some of my lecturers concluded decades ago that part of the problem was that Israel was often so anxious for some contact that it gave/sold China what it wanted without demanding a full relationship in return.
Shai warns that Israel should not now expect to focus on economic aspects without taking into account China’s possible demands in the diplomatic arena (or expecting it to help contain Iran.)
Israel, and the West in general, should also keep in mind that there is no business company or organization in the People’s Republic that is not ultimately controlled by the Communist Party. Shai describes as a “red light” China’s purchase of Israel’s dairy giant, Tnuva; the aim to win the contract for construction and operation of a railroad to Eilat; Chinese interest in buying insurance companies (which run the pension and saving plans of most Israelis); and its interest and involvement in building Israeli ports and power plants. There is also a potential loss through Chinese-funded university research centers and projects.
“Where do we define our borders in the close cooperation with the Chinese?”
Shai asks, and a footnote refers to an interview with former Mossad head Efraim Halevi who has often voiced concerns regarding Chinese expansion of its Belt and Road initiative. Shai notes that already the Chinese have reached a stage in Israel in which economic centers of power could eventually be transformed into strategic and geopolitical centers of power. The flourishing relations are wrapped with chains rather than strings. China remains more complex than it is often given credit for.