Honoring the millennial friendship between Jews and China

Unlike their experience in Europe, Russia and many other Christian and Muslim countries in the world, the Jews have never experienced discrimination or prejudice in China.

China Israel flags (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
China Israel flags
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Israel and the 26th year of diplomatic ties between it and China.
Historically, the Chinese and the Jews have enjoyed good relations for over a thousand years, when the first Jews from what is now Iraq settled in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).
After the first Opium War, Jewish communities were established in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, Harbin and other cities in Manchuria. After World War Two and the Communist revolution, most Jews left the mainland – but, since the start of the open-door era in the 1980s, many have returned to live and work in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The Jewish community in Hong Kong, numbering about 5,000, has been the most long-lasting in the modern era, with a continued presence since the 1840s. There are also an estimated 10,000 Jews living in mainland China today.
Ehud Olmert, who served as mayor of Jerusalem and 12th prime minister of Israel, has an indissoluble bond with Harbin, today the eighth most populous Chinese city, and an important political, scientific, economic and cultural hub in Northeast China. Olmert’s grandparents immigrated from Russia to Harbin, and his grandfather J.J. Olmert lived, died and is buried in Harbin.
Starting from the late 19th century, Jews fleeing czarist Russia’s persecution flooded into Harbin, their population peaking at some 25,000 in the 1920s. The emigrants turned the city into the largest Jewish political, economic and cultural center in the Far East. The Harbin Jewish cemetery is the biggest and best protected Jewish cemetery of its kind in the Far East and a silent witness of friendship between the Chinese and Jews.
The most dramatic illustration of this friendship came during World War Two, when 25,000-30,000 Jews from Europe took refuge in Shanghai. The authorities of the international and French concessions opened the doors and allowed them to live in the city, at a time when most countries in the world refused them entry. Thousands received visas from Asian diplomats – Ho Feng-shan, Chinese consul general in Vienna; Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania; and, according to his autobiography, Wang Ti-fu, a diplomat of the Manchukuo embassy in Berlin. They issued the visas despite orders from their superiors not to do so.
In December 1941, the Japanese military occupied the concessions and took over responsibility for the Jews living there. In July 1942, Josef Meisinger, the chief Gestapo representative in Japan, came to Shanghai and demanded the Japanese implement the “Final Solution” against the Jewish residents. They refused. As a result, most of the Jews survived the war.
As early as January 1950, the young State of Israel announced that it had decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China. But Chairman Mao supported the Arab and revolutionary causes, so diplomatic relations could not be implemented during his era.
In the 1980s, trade relations began, but discreetly. Israel became an important supplier of arms to China, but shipments had to be kept secret, so as not to upset Beijing’s Arab partners. Israel sent farm specialists to China to improve its irrigation, especially in arid and desert regions; Israel is a world leader in this sector.
It was not until January 1992 that Israel and China signed the agreement, in Beijing, to normalize diplomatic relations. Since then, economic and other ties have blossomed, especially in the past five years, to a level neither side expected in 1992.
China has become one of the largest foreign investors in Israel, with an estimated $16 billion invested in 2016, much of it in start-ups, in which the country is a world leader. One of the earliest Chinese investors in Israeli technology companies is Li Ka-shing. He also donated $130 million to the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – the largest donation it has ever received. In response, it has helped to establish the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a joint venture between the institute and Shantou University, which was founded in 1981 with a donation by Li. The new institute was officially inaugurated on December 19, 2017.
Last September, medical aesthetics company Sisram Medical, formerly Alma Lasers, completed its IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising $112m., the first Israeli hi-tech company to list on a Chinese stock market. More will follow. Sisram Medical was acquired in 2013 by Chinese company Fosun Pharma.
In January 6, an article on the economic outlook for 2018, The Jerusalem Post said that, while Americans remained the biggest foreign investors in the Jewish state, Chinese investments into Israel might overtake the US in a few years.
Israel is also a world leader in biomedical research and development. For instance, one of us (DL) had the good fortune to meet Prof. Amiram Grinwald, a former Harvard colleague, as well as Prof. Michael Belkin, both of whom have been outstanding in expanding the horizons of vision, ophthalmology and neuroscience.
One of the reasons for the special millennial friendship between Jews and Chinese might lie in familial and school education. Especially, both cultures stress the importance of a loving relationship within the family, beginning with great respect for one’s parents and teachers. In fact, the famous Chinese saying: “educate oneself, harmonize the family, help the country, make peace in the world” forms the basis of behavior and training for all Chinese.
Some researchers document this unique connection through drawing the similarities between Chinese New Year and Passover. The observance of the Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival, the same name Jews sometimes use for Passover – Chag Ha’aviv. In addition, both holidays share similarities in performing common rituals, e.g. thorough cleaning of the house, family ritual meals with special foods, etc. Another thought-provoking resemblance is linguistic detail – the Chinese word for year is “nian,” and Hebrew month Passover falls in is Nisan.
Most remarkably, unlike their experience in Europe, Russia and many other Christian and Muslim countries in the world, the Jews have never experienced discrimination or prejudice in China. For instance, a Jew can walk the streets of mainland China or Hong Kong with a kippa, a sign of his faith, without fear of being attacked or insulted – as he might be in many other cities around the world.
Rabbi Asher Oser of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong described it poetically: “I believe in God and the hand of providence. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can see God’s guiding hand, and the story of the Jews in China is one of those lucky times. We see God’s guiding hand, we have seen providence.” Thus, with the Chinese government and among its citizens, the view has been that Jews are generally gifted, friendly, and hard working people whose talents should be harnessed for the national and global good.
Prof. Dominic Man-Kit Lam is the chairman of the World Eye Organization and World Culture Organization, as well as a world acclaimed artist, scientist, philanthropist, educator, medical professor and entrepreneur. For his scientific and philanthropic achievements, Lam has received many honors and awards, including the coveted US “High Tech Entrepreneur of the Year,” “Presidential Medal of Merit” from president George H.W. Bush, Asia Society’s “Man of the Year”, Honorary D.Sc., and the Asian Social Caring Leadership Award from the United Nations Global Impact and Nobel Foundation.
Mark O’Neill is an author who has lived in Asia since 1978. He has written eight books on Chinese history. The latest, to be published later this month, is Israel and China; from the Tang Dynasty to Silicon Wadi by Joint Publishing, with versions in English and traditional Chinese.
Marina de Moses is social entrepreneur, philanthropist, journalist and pianist. She provides counsel to startups through a mechanism that applies innovation via collaboration of businesses, governments and non-profits. Fluent in multiple languages and alphabets, she has lived in countries across Europe, Asia and America.