All roads lead to China

Although Prof. Amram Olmert grew up in Israel, his professional and personal lives have led him to a close relationship with the People’s Republic.

WORKERS AT a Chinese greenhouse seen implmenting tehcniques learned from MASHAV (photo credit: MASHAV)
WORKERS AT a Chinese greenhouse seen implmenting tehcniques learned from MASHAV
(photo credit: MASHAV)
At face value, Amram Olmert’s story is like many Ashkenazim who grew up in the nascent Israeli state – a product of two educated parents, who against all odds immigrated to Israel in search of the Zionist dream.
But while most of these Ashkenazi Jews hailed from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with haunting memories of the Holocaust, Olmert’s family came from Harbin in China’s Heilongjiang province. At the turn of the 20th century, many Russian Jewish families immigrated to Harbin with the approval of the Russian Czarist government to help populate the region after the Russian-funded Chinese Eastern Railway was built.
Among those families were Olmert’s grandparents.
“They studied in China and were fluent in Mandarin,” Olmert said proudly of his parents and their multicultural heritage. “We had many decorations in our home from China. It surrounded me. It was my childhood.”
But how does an agriculture expert in Rehovot find his way to China? For a while, a path to rediscovering his family’s origins seemed like an unattainable dream.
“At the time, I didn’t see a direct way I could find my way back there,” he said. “But looking back at my career, I can see that thinking about China governed much of the direction of my life.”
It is a career that has cemented Olmert – the elder brother of former prime minister Ehud Olmert – as one of the preeminent experts in Sino-Israeli agriculture cooperation. He served as the counselor of agriculture for the Israel Embassy in China and was a visiting professor at four universities there. Today, he is an independent consultant to Israeli and Chinese companies in the agriculture realm.
“One of the first steps in Israel-Sino cooperation was in the agriculture industry,” Olmert explained.
In 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin encouraged China’s Premier Li Peng to establish a demonstration farm in China that would be an example of Israeli agri-tech innovation working in concert with Chinese locals. MASHAV, Israel’s International Development Cooperation in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which sends Israeli experts in medicine and science to provide humanitarian aid to countries around the world, helped build this farm in 1996.
The farm was a game-changer, Olmert says.
He recalls former ambassador to China, Ora Namir, inviting China Premier Li Peng to the demonstration farm, where camera crews from China’s Channel 7 were in attendance. Namir demonstrated the farm’s state-of-the-art irrigation technology, which captivated millions of viewers.
“The demonstration farm reflected its value from the very beginning: The yield was two to three times that of other normal farms, the quality of its produce was much higher and the preservation much longer,” a MASHAV paper detailing the farm explained. “The achievement indicates that with the proper use, farmers could get more income in the same land, and in the meantime they are less dependent on water and the changing weather.”
Today, several of these farms are located across China, and cooperation between the two countries has skyrocketed.
Just last year, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and China’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Yu Xinrong signed a joint action plan for future collaborations with the hope of doubling agricultural trade volume between the two nations over the next five years. The joint action plan aims to promote cooperation between the two nations, specifically focusing on bilateral trade, knowledge exchanges and collaborative research projects.
But with China’s technological expertise growing rapidly by the minute, is there a chance China will no longer need the assistance of the Jewish state?
“It’s possible for them to be so independent that they don’t need outside expertise,” Olmert said with a smile. “But this is okay. It will just mean Israel will have to come up with more out-of-the-box ideas, and I’m not worried about that.”