Things you don't know about Israel-Taiwan relations

This article highlights a range of unsuspecting people, places, and activities you probably didn’t know existed between Israel and Taiwan. 

 (From left) Bat Yam Design Terminal executive Anya Shani, Rep. Ya-ping (Abby) Lee, artist Yosifu Kacaw, and Bat Yam Mayor Tzvika Brot.  (photo credit: SHANNA FULD)
(From left) Bat Yam Design Terminal executive Anya Shani, Rep. Ya-ping (Abby) Lee, artist Yosifu Kacaw, and Bat Yam Mayor Tzvika Brot.
(photo credit: SHANNA FULD)

As Taiwan stands bold in its fight to gain international recognition of statehood, Israel stands in a unique position. With business ties to China, military ties to Russia, and a close alliance with the powerhouse US, one could wonder how Israel is able to manage such a diverse range of diplomatic relations. Israel supports Taiwan by hosting its Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. It’s not an official embassy, but it certainly operates as such.

China views Taiwan as a province and Taiwan views itself as an independent nation, along with only a dozen other countries in agreement (out of 195). In June the office celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations with Israel. This article highlights a range of unsuspecting people, places, and activities you probably didn’t know existed between Israel and Taiwan. 

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office is headed by Representative Ya-Ping (Abby) Lee. She’s not considered an ambassador by Israel’s diplomatic standard, but she acts and represents everything an ambassador is meant to be – on the job and off. 

Previously working the role in New York, Rep. Lee is now taking Israel by storm. Her mention brings a smile and head tilt to the faces of anyone who’s met her and it feels that the momentum (at least in the city of Tel Aviv where she’s stationed) around Taiwan’s history, culture, and desire for global recognition is growing. 

Just ask Ann Chen, a Taiwanese student who has been living in Israel for five years. Chen works with the embassy on a freelance basis, curating art exhibitions for cultural center activities. She says when she first arrived, most Israelis mistook Taiwan for Thailand or asked her if it was a city in Japan. Today she is warmed to witness knowing nods instead of confused head shakes when she answers questions from curious Israelis about where she’s from. 

 Ya-ping (Abby) Lee, Taiwan’s representative in Israel. (credit: MAYA GOODMAN)
Ya-ping (Abby) Lee, Taiwan’s representative in Israel. (credit: MAYA GOODMAN)

Chen came to Israel for the first time on a two-week Christian Bible study tour. She said she “felt something so different,” even more different than the other countries she had traveled to.

“I wanted to know more about the feeling. I felt that I was coming back. But it is not correct. It was my first time in the Middle East. After the trip I wanted to come again and understand the feeling,” Chen said. “Why do I love it?”

Chen returned to the Holy Land for an exchange program where she studied art at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. During her year of study, she executed a blog sharing her daily life in Israel with thousands of interested Taiwanese people, who only knew Israel through the violent stories they had heard in the news. 

After her studies, Chen returned to Taiwan and published a book that came from a collection of all her posts to tell her story. She’s sold some 1,000 copies and she says she could feel the interest in Israeli culture is growing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen’s Taiwanese friend asked her to help him open and maintain an Israeli restaurant in Taiwan’s bustling capital, Taipei. Chen, who was back in Taiwan at that time, built a menu, designed the interior and executed events she thought would help the average Taiwanese person learn more about Israel. The concept was to bring the relaxed “Jaffa vibes” to Taipei. She used Jaffa’s Cafe Puaa as her model. 

Operating an Israeli restaurant was fun, but a plate of shawarma in Taipei wasn’t cutting it for Chen. She returned to Israel to further her education in the place she calls home. Today she studies Hebrew at Tel Aviv University and is working toward a Master’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction at Reichman University. Chen hopes to get a working visa sponsorship through an Israeli start-up she is in conversation with. The company digitizes printing. It’s the perfect fit for the modern creator, who refers to herself as “Ann in Israel” on her social media platforms.

“Israel opened my eyes to lead me to another way in life. To adventure. And I think this spirit has been affected by Israelis. Being braver and not afraid of failure,” Chen said. 

Today she finds Taiwan-Israel relations are getting stronger and the more she continues her life in Israel, the more she sees Taiwanese and Israeli people traveling to each other’s countries to experience them.

“Sometimes I meet someone who really knows about Taiwan and I get excited. Sometimes people know our history and they tell me that Israel and Taiwan have a lot in common. Because of the fight for independence,” Chen said. 

Taiwan's diplomatic ties with Israel

While Ann in Israel may be one of the originals – you’re going to start seeing a lot more Taiwanese youth in Israel, as representative Lee has just officiated a first ever “working holiday scheme” (as it is called by the Foreign Affairs Ministry). The initiative offers 200 young people each from Israel and Taiwan (between 18 and 30) the opportunity to visit each other’s countries and work legally for a year. Representative Lee says she expects her arrangement will encourage young people to understand each other’s culture and society thoroughly. The details as to how the application process will work are still in discussion. Lee broke the news of the signing to The Jerusalem Report at a June celebration commemorating 30 years of Israel-Taiwan diplomacy. Taiwan has 17 other “working holiday schemes” with other nations and Israel is the 18th.

“We hope we can bring back more people-to-people exchanges and visits and bring new momentum to all the bilateral cooperations,” Lee said. 

The gala was hosted by the Bat Yam Design Terminal and welcomed people from all sectors of Israeli society including appearances from Bat Yam Mayor Tzvika Brot and MK Yorai Lahav Hertzano. Many in the room showed up due to their warm relationship with Lee. The evening centered around a special Taiwanese art exhibit by Yosifu Kacaw the artist selected to showcase Taiwan’s rich culture.

The walls of Bat Yam’s Design Terminal were adorned with 13 of Kacaw’s colorful, deep paintings which were mostly done with bold reds, blues, and robust brush strokes. His “Tree of Life’’ mural covered one of the warehouse walls from floor to ceiling where it will remain indefinitely, as requested by the terminals’ leadership. The artist says he was given three days and a rickety ladder to get the larger-than-life tree accomplished. 

Kacaw said his Tree of Life mural was a tricky operation. He worked to incorporate Taiwanese and Israeli cultural elements together. The image shows a tall olive tree, which he thought represented Israel, and he added in the nation’s colors of blue and white. Bold pinks were painted in, representing the tropical colors of Taiwan’s ripe fruits, abundant flowers, and of course: feelings of happiness. Kacaw asked viewers to look at the tree and think about who they are and where they come from. 

Lee is a fan and follower of Kacaw. She selected him for his popular art on Facebook as well as his attention to Taiwan’s indigenous population. Born in the village of Matailing, Yuli Country, Taiwan, Kacaw is not just an artist for the sake of self-expression. His pieces showcase the many faces of indigenous Taiwanese people who are not known or even understood by the Taiwanese mainstream. Today Kacaw lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and stands as one of the rare artists in Europe who primarily explores the subject of Taiwan’s indigenous culture. In his introduction, Kacaw informed hundreds of Israeli guests that in fact, many of the peoples who live in New Zealand, Polynesia, and Hawaii are actually descendants of the indigenous Taiwanese. 

His only regret about his whirlwind trip to the Holy Land? Working too hard and being too busy to see the whole country. 

“I felt like home the first day I got here. I feel the local people are very loud, but very passionate, but also very free and it’s just like my people. I’ve fallen in love with Israel,” Kacaw said. 

Jewish travelers to Taiwan may be surprised to find that in March 2023, Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau visited Taiwan’s capital for three days, attending a ceremony dedicated to its new Jewish community center. The summit hosted about 30 rabbis from the region and Rabbi Lau met with Jewish religious leaders from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and even Australia. 

The Taiwanese Jewish community has had a dramatic resurgence in the past decade. In 2011, the Hassidic Chabad-Lubavitcher Rabbi Shlomi Tabib moved to Taiwan and, with the help of the local Jewish community and a Jewish businessman named Jeffrey Schwartz, opened a $16 million dollar Jewish Community Center. The center offers a kosher restaurant, a mikveh for ritual bathing, and a Judaica museum; and hosts events and tours to the public. 

Lee was very excited about having facilities for observant Jews in Taipei and displayed photos of the center at Tel Aviv’s International Mediterranean Tourism Market exposition. She says she is hopeful about the future of relations between Israel and Taiwan. Objectively, she’s working each day to improve them.

Israel-Tawain business and trade ties

IN RECENT years, trade and investment between Israel and Taiwan have flourished, with both countries benefiting from increased economic cooperation. Hi-tech industries, agricultural technologies, and medical innovations have been at the forefront of this relationship.

“Taiwan and Israel share the innovative spirit, our two countries complement each other in the technology landscape. Taiwan is a leader in hardware and Israel is a leader in software. Our partnership can create synergies beyond imagination,” Lee said in a statement to celebrate the 30 years. 

Meanwhile, Israel and Taiwan have been engaging in discreet defense cooperation. Sharing common security concerns, both nations have swapped intelligence and explored avenues for military cooperation, primarily in the areas of defense technology and counter-terrorism. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel and Taiwan were quick to share each other’s best practices, medical expertise, and technological advancements to combat the virus.

Trade between Taiwan and Israel has been steadily rising, and in 2022, Israel’s trade with Taiwan reached $2.67 billion. Taiwan is a global powerhouse for semiconductors, more commonly known as computer “chips.” It produces 60% of the world’s basic chips and more than 90% of the world’s advanced chips. This asset has made it tough for countries to turn a blind eye to Taiwan’s cries for support.

While official diplomats might not be able to say it in words, Chen can in Israel. She told the Report that as she looks to the future, she hopes a job will come through to help her stay in Israel, and that her nation of origin be officially recognized. 

“I really wish in the future we can have an embassy in Israel, not a cultural office. An official relationship,” Chen said. “We already think we are an independent country, but the international community doesn’t. I hope that will change.”  ■