China’s kosher past

A glance at grassroots ties between Israel and the Far East.

Chinese dragon 521 (photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
Chinese dragon 521
(photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
Afull auditorium at Tel Aviv’s Gan Ha’ir was wowed and amused last week when Shi Yong, the deputy ambassador and chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv sang the Naomi Shemer song “Horshat ha’ekaliptus” (The Eucalyptus Grove) accompanying his Chinese Hebrew-language interpreter.
Shi’s gesture, while completely unexpected by the delighted crowd at the annual gathering and 60th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of Former China Residents, was a fitting continuation of the positive modern-era Chinese-Jewish relations going back to the 19th century and may foreshadow a new chapter of stronger relations between China and Israel.
The Jewish population of early 20th-century China was a collection of four separate Jewish communities that each immigrated to the country at different times and to different ports of entry.
The oldest and most prosperous group of Jews in China was the community of Baghdadi Jewish merchants who came to China by way of India in the aftermath of the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century.
Largely working as traders, these Jews came to China to take advantage of new business opportunities in the concession treaty ports newly opened to foreign trade.
Beginning in Hong Kong, the locus of the community shifted towards Shanghai toward the start of the 20th century, where the Sephardi businessmen were some of the most prominent members of city’s foreign elite.
The Baghdadi community was deeply involved in developing what was to become two major international cities and trading hubs with interests in various import-export businesses, an internationalclass hotel, electric power companies and more. The two most successful Baghdadi families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, became so prominent that several of their members were knighted by the British crown and made members of the English aristocracy.
Among the Mandate-era population Sir Ellis Kadoorie was the most recognized of these Baghdadi Jews for bequeathing in his will the funds to establish two agricultural schools in Palestine, one for Arabs, located in Tulkarm, and another for Jews, near Kfar Tavor – both of which carry his name to this day.
THE SECOND Jewish community to arrive in China was the Russian Jewish community centered around Harbin. The first Jewish immigrants arrived to develop the city of Harbin, formally established in 1898, and the surrounding areas due to a deliberate loophole in the czar’s anti-Jewish regulatory regime.
Normally, Jews in the Russian Empire were confined to the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe, and numerous restrictions and quotas were placed on their entry into universities, technical training schools and various professions.
However, in 1896 Russia gained the right from the Qing Emperor to build the Chinese Eastern Railway through Manchuria to connect Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway with the port of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and China’s northernmost ports.
As part of the deal, the czar’s negotiators persuaded the Chinese government to grant the Russian government control over the railroad and all territory surrounding the railroad under a leasing agreement to the Russian Empire.
To populate this vast, resource-rich expanse of territory located far away from any major Russian population centers with Russian subjects, the railway administration, acting on the czar’s authority, refused to enforce the usual restrictions on Jewish settlement and economic activities. This led to a small influx of Jewish entrepreneurs to establish themselves both in Harbin and along major train depot towns throughout Manchuria.
“Harbin was both part of Russia and not part of Russia. The civil and economic liberties that the Jews had in Harbin was unlike anything they had in Russia itself,” says Prof. Jonathan Goldstein, professor of East Asian History at West Georgia University and an expert on Chinese Jewry. “The only thing comparable to Harbin was the Panama Canal Zone, which was both part and not part of the United States.”
The initial Jewish population of several thousand then trebled in size at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, with many Jewish families fleeing the chaos and economic distress brought on by World War I and the civil war between the Communist and various White factions.
At its peak in 1936, the Harbin Jewish community numbered over 20,000 and was home to two major synagogues, still extant, and active branches of the Revisionist Zionist Beitar and the socialist Hashomer Hatza’ir.
The Harbin Jewish community was a “classic example of transnational identity,” stated Goldstein. “These people are very proud of their Russian heritage... and are equally proud of the fact that they escaped the Holocaust and lived in Harbin [and]...
people who are equally Zionistic...”
“Some of this small group of really fabrente [vigorous] Jewish communists in from Harbin even called these Jews involved in business ‘radishes,’” said Goldstein. “You know, red on the outside but white at the center.”
Along with these Jewish communists, several American Jewish communist even joined Chairman Mao Tse-tung in the struggle against the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War.
IT WAS some of these Jewish communists whom Prof. Yossi Shalhevet invited to at the first Seder led by Israeli representatives in Beijing in 1991 before the full normalization of relations between the two countries.
Shalhevet, a professor of soil and water management affiliated with the Volcani Research Institute in Beit Dagan and the Hebrew University Agricultural School in Rehovot, was sent along with his wife Sheila and two other staff members to establish and run an Israeli scientific liaison office in Beijing between 1990 and 1992 as preparation for the full resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1992. After 1992 the office he set up became the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.
Shalhevet particularly remembers inviting six or seven Jewish Maoist diehards to attend that Seder in 1991.
“We were the first official Israelis to come... and when we came there was no animosity whatsoever... One of the [Jewish communists], Sidney Shapiro, we had contact with from the beginning because he had contact with Israelis and he even visited Israel. He was one of the first we entertained in our apartment... Because we were the Israeli representatives we made a big Seder and we invited all these Jews, all the ones we could find.
“One of them said it was the first Seder they had been to since they had came to China in 1942 or thereabouts. Everyone was overwhelmed because they were Jews but divorced from Jewish life.... This first Seder that we were together was very emotional for them... they fell back into the Jewish fold.”
The last two groups of Jews to arrive in China were German and Yiddish-speaking Holocaust refugees fleeing Germany, Austria, Poland and Lithuania, mostly on forged immigration visas to the Caribbean island of Curaçao with the real intended destination of Japan and then Japanese-controlled Shanghai.
Able to remain in Shanghai without proper citizenship papers or visas for the duration of the war due to the city’s status as an international zone and the benevolent blind eye Japanese authorities took to their status, this community of refugees survived the war crowded in Shanghai’s Hongkou district largely on the charity provided by the city’s wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community and funds raised from the American Jewish Congress by more established members of the Far East’s Jewish communities.
Despite the prosperity these Chinese Jews enjoyed, in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War and the expropriation of private businesses, amid the failures of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War, almost the entire Jewish community decided to leave China. Many moved to the United States and Australia, but a large contingent made aliya.
Here in 1951 the leadership of the Chinese Jewish community founded the Organization of Former China Residents – originally called the Organization of Chinese Olim, or in Hebrew Igud Yotzei Sin – to support fellow landsmen. With the help of sister organizations for Chinese Jews in Sydney, New York City and San Francisco, the Igud raised money support the new olim through the difficult period of adjusting and reestablishing themselves in Israel during the early years of the state.
ACCORDING TO Igud chairman Teddy Kaufmann, 8,500 Jews made aliya from China. Today there are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Chinese Jews (500 families) and their descendants in Israel, the rest having died or moved to other countries.
After the olim from China had largely been absorbed into Israeli society, the Igud redirected its efforts towards creating a fund to provide scholarships to the children and descendants of former Chinese Jews to assist younger generations in Israel in pursuit of higher education.
In the more than 40 years since it was established, the Igud’s scholarship fund has provided over 4,000 scholarships to Israeli students, awarding on average $80,000 in scholarship grants to 150 students every year.
Perhaps it is these personal ties that can explain some of the cordial atmosphere between Chinese and Israelis. Of course, it might also be Israel’s burgeoning trade ties with China. According to Israel’s trade mission to China in Beijing, Sino-Israeli trade ties in 2010 exceeded an annual figure of $6.7 billion, more than 100 times the initial trade figures between the two countries when diplomatic ties were normalized in 1992 and an amount that Shi referred to as “not insignificant” to the citizens of the world’s second-largest economy.
“I think Israel is a great country,” said David Tao, a Chinese scholarship recipient and Hebrew University economics student. “[Israel] is a new country like China. We both only have about 60 years of history as countries...
but Israel is also an important country for many international companies that conduct research and development here, such as Microsoft and IBM. That they put their faith in Israel is proof that the Israeli people are good at innovation and research.”
One of Israeli attendees at the Gan Ha’ir event, Amram Olmert, brother of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and father of one of the night’s scholarship recipients, described his own close connections with China even after his entire family’s aliya to Israel many years ago.
“As a descendant of Harbin natives, including my grandfather, I had the honor to place a new gravestone at his grave in the Jewish cemetery of Harbin,” said Olmert. He added, “I visited there before Ehud arrived,” referring to the former prime minister’s well-publicized trip to China in 2004.
“I was the CEO of a company called Agridev, a company that is involved in agricultural projects all over the world,” Olmert said. “I first came to China in 1989 before their were [official] relations [between Israel and China]. With the establishment of official relations, I established the first Israeli-model farm there. Today I am a visiting professor at Beijing Harbin and Juhai-area universities and I have a book coming out in China in Chinese called From Jerusalem to Beijing.”
Perhaps all these reasons might explain why China’s representative began last week’s event with a “toda raba [many thanks]” to all the evening’s participants and especially to the Igud and Israel-China Friendship Society before extending, on behalf of the Chinese government, an open welcome to the descendants of Jewish former residents of China to return and invest in Chinese enterprises.