Are Tibetans the new Jews?

No nation - Israel included - is willing to antagonize the Chinese.

dalai 63 (photo credit: )
dalai 63
(photo credit: )
In 1990, the Dalai Lama hosted a delegation of American Jews in Dharamsala, his home in exile in the hill country of northern India. His agenda was clear. Tibetans had lost sovereignty over their homeland and were scattering around the globe. How, he asked, had Jews preserved their cultural and religious identities during their own 2,000-year exile, and what might Tibetans do to preserve theirs? Some 18 years later, the parallel between Tibet's unfolding and increasingly bleak prospects and the Jewish historical experience seems all the more relevant. Just as after the failed first century Jewish uprising against Rome, Tibetans are becoming a minority in their homeland thanks to Beijing's strategy of drastically and irreversibly altering Tibet's population by flooding the territory with Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group. Already, two out of every three residents of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, is Han Chinese. In 2006, Beijing hastened the process considerably by opening a high-speed rail link between Lhasa and Beijing. Saffron-robe clad Tibetan Buddhist monks have been replaced by Chinese-run brothels, karaoke bars and a sprawling amusement park that now surround the Portola Palace, the Dalai Lama's former residence and Tibet's equivalent of Jerusalem's ancient Temple. IT'S EASY to imagine that the only reason China has not razed the Portola Palace as Rome razed the Second Temple is the horrific press response that action would unleash in today's global media environment, a nuisance Rome did not have to contend with. How much easier for Beijing to leave the palace intact, if only for its tourism value, particularly this year when large numbers of foreign visitors are expected to visit China's far-flung provinces as part of their Beijing Olympics experience. But saving the palace does absolutely nothing to offset the greatest threats to Tibet's future as a political entity run by and for Tibetans: the passing of time and humanity's cruelly short memory. It took Jews almost two millennia to re-establish an independent state in their homeland. During that time, later-arriving Arabs settled in the land and claimed it as their own. Despite Judaism's numerous ritual reminders of Zion's centrality, Jewish historical ties to the land were conveniently forgotten by most of the world, which came to view modern Jews as having no connection to the ancient Israelites who once populated the same land. As a result, returning Jews were regarded as colonialist interlopers and Arabs were seen as indigenous innocents suffering at the hands of Jewish pretenders. Tibetans now face a similar inversion of history. How long will it be before Tibetans are viewed as a relic, and perhaps bothersome, minority in their homeland similar to the condition of Native Americans in the United States, Formosans in Taiwan, or Serbs in Kosovo? How long must Beijing hold on to Tibet before the world comes to think of Tibet as Chinese territory and favors the claims of the descendants of Chinese settlers over Tibetans seeking to reestablish their historical national rights? Another 30 years? A century or two? Two thousand years? I FIRST met the Dalai Lama in 1979 in Los Angeles during his initial visit to the United States. Like so many others, I was immediately charmed. Tibetans revered him as the fourteenth in a line of individuals said to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a being who it is said willingly delays completion of his own spiritual enlightenment by repeatedly reincarnating for the purpose of helping others first attain theirs. Yet despite his otherworldly aura, he was entirely approachable, a seemingly "simple monk" - as he often describes himself - in possession of a keen and self-mocking sense of humor. Speaking on interfaith relations at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council luncheon during that visit, he displayed an infectious giggle over his poor command of English when his interpreter informed him that a Jewish religious leader was called a rabbi, not a "rabie" as he had mispronounced it. I've since been in his presence as a journalist or spiritual explorer numerous times - at day-long Tibetan religious ceremonies, at meetings with Western scientists during which he spoke about the brain- and personality-altering power of meditation, and at meetings with Washington politicians at which he pushed the Tibetan cause. Perhaps the most unforgettable encounter was a 1997 Pessah Seder staged in his honor by the Reform movement - at which he decided that gefilte fish wasn't to his liking. THE DALAI LAMA still retains his trademark demeanor even as his public pronouncements on the future of Tibet have become increasingly dark. He has said he is likely to be the last Dalai Lama (Dalai Lama is a title; the current office holder's actual name is Tenzin Gayatso), which would mean the end of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition stretching back more than 500 years. Rather than lobbying for genuine Tibetan independence, he now restricts himself to calling for Tibetan cultural self-determination. Politically, the Dalai Lama argues correctly that Tibetans are powerless in the face of brutal Chinese repression and that, for all his pop culture stardom, no nation - not the United States and certainly not little Israel - is willing to antagonize the Chinese behemoth for the sake of strategically meaningless Tibet. Religiously - and he is a religious leader more than he is a political figure - he notes that Buddhism's central beliefs in the impermanence and interdependence of all worldly phenomenon dictate that Tibet's ongoing existence as a separate state is hardly assured or even necessary. Jewish cultural identity survived the destruction of the Second Temple by shifting from a temple-based religion to its rabbinic form. Moreover, it took Jewish secularists willing to take up the gun for Zionism to gain a state in the modern era. Tibetan religion and culture are in the initial stages of a similarly radical transformation. What shape that will take and whether it will successfully preserve a distinct Tibetan identity is, of course, unanswerable. What is clear is that Jews and Tibetans have more in common than is superficially apparent - as the Dalai Lama recognized back in 1990. The writer is an author and editor in Annapolis, Maryland, who writes often about Jews and Buddhism.