Un­der­stand­ing Is­raeli-Chi­nese re­la­tions

Past, present and fu­ture of ties be­tween the Mid­dle King­dom and the Jewish State

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • LIAT COLLINS

In 1982, I be­gan study­ing at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem for a BA in East Asian stud­ies, fo­cus­ing on China and the Chi­nese lan­guage. The class was tiny, the de­part­ment con­stantly un­der threat of clo­sure and my class­mates and I were of­ten ridiculed. The stan­dard joke was that we were the op­ti­mists and the Rus­sian-lan­guage stu­dents the pes­simists. There were no open diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Is­rael and China and few thought there would be at any time in the near fu­ture. We, and the stu­dents who fol­lowed us, had the last laugh. The two coun­tries signed on a diplo­matic agree­ment 10 years af­ter I started learn­ing the al­pha­bet-less lan­guage and ex­traor­di­nary his­tory of the Mid­dle King­dom.

To­day, there are not only strong diplo­matic and eco­nomic re­la­tions with China, but even young Is­raeli school­child­ren are learn­ing Chi­nese (which is not as hard as it looks) and some ma­jor tourist sites now have signs in Chi­nese for the ben­e­fit of thou­sands of vis­i­tors.

ARON SHAI, the Shaul N. Eisen­berg Pro­fes­sor of East Asian Stud­ies and pro-rec­tor of Tel Aviv Univer­sity, has packed a tremen­dous amount of in­for­ma­tion in a very read­able form into this well-re­searched book. He re­al­izes that the all-im­por­tant ques­tion of the na­ture of Sino-Is­raeli re­la­tions in the fu­ture can only be con­tem­plated with knowl­edge of the past, which is why the book looks at re­la­tions from the an­cient Jewish com­mu­nity of Kaifeng to the present.

With some 50 years in the field, Shai ad­mits to be­ing an “old-school so­cial­ist with up­dates man­dated by time” and this ide­ol­ogy un­abashedly col­ors the way he has stud­ied and pre­sented China. (A lot of pages are ded­i­cated to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­rael’s Com­mu­nist Party and China in the early days of the state.) Yet by the end of the book, it is clear that there is an ever-chang­ing re­la­tion­ship.

He notes early on what both cul­tures have in com­mon: stress­ing the family and im­por­tance of cul­tural con­ti­nu­ity; learn­ing and in­tro­spec­tion. The Chi­nese philoso­phers hold a spe­cial im­por­tance for the Chi­nese in the same way that the rab­binic Sages have for Jews. A par­tic­u­larly as­tute in­sight, how­ever, con­cerns the vastly dif­fer­ent way China and the West ap­proach life.

“The Eu­ro­pean world­view is di­choto­mous and has dis­tinct cat­e­gories: good and bad, pure and im­pure, male and fe­male, light and dark, yes and no. This de­ci­sive­ness par­al­lels the Is­raeli lan­guage and men­tal­ity… But this ap­proach does not fit the Chi­nese view of life. Chi­nese cul­ture was in­spired by a philo­soph­i­cal and eth­i­cal sys­tem that is thou­sands of years old and is based on the con­cept of yin and yang.” Yin and yang are op­po­site – light and dark – but they are in­ter­de­pen­dent.

Shai be­lieves that only by un­der­stand­ing this idea of a so­phis­ti­cated spec­trum “which en­folds op­po­sites in a sin­gle em­brace” can we make sense of the way mod­ern China can have both a free eco­nomic mar­ket and a po­lice state con­trolled by the Com­mu­nist Party.

THE BOOK is built on three sec­tions, the first be­ing a his­tor­i­cal-po­lit­i­cal analysis; the sec­ond (my fa­vorite) the sto­ries of two cen­tral fig­ures in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and Jews, be­fore the State of Is­rael; and a more per­sonal sum­mary at the end of the book.

Since the struc­ture en­ables read­ers to look at dif­fer­ent themes in what­ever or­der they pre­fer, I’d start with the por­traits of the fig­ures of Moshe Co­hen, pop­u­larly known as Mor­ris “Two-Gun” Co­hen and the all-im­por­tant Shaul Eisen­berg, with­out whom to­day’s diplo­matic and eco­nomic re­la­tions would not be what they are.

The sto­ries of Two-Gun Co­hen are so much larger than life that it is hard to de­ci­pher truth from le­gend. With­out de­mol­ish­ing the stand­ing of the most col­or­ful Jewish char­ac­ter to play a role in Chi­nese his­tory, Shai notes that there are some dis­crep­an­cies. Born in Poland in 1887, Co­hen moved with his large re­li­gious family to Eng­land as a boy but was so of­ten caught fight­ing and pick­pock­et­ing that af­ter a term in a ju­ve­nile in­sti­tu­tion, he was packed off to Canada. There his life as a petty crim­i­nal and gambler con­tin­ued but he, in a rar­ity for a Westerner, man­aged to forge ties with the lo­cal Chi­nese com­mu­nity (some say af­ter he phys­i­cally pre­vented a rob­bery at a Chi­nese restau­rant). He be­came in­volved in the Tong Meng Hui or­ga­ni­za­tion, Sun Yat Sen’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary group and the rest is an em­broi­dered his­tory in which he be­came the leader’s per­sonal body­guard. He re­mained a proud Jew and ap­par­ently also ad­mired the Zion­ist move­ment. There are re­ports that when rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Na­tion­al­ist China planned to vote in the UN against the par­ti­tion plan that led to the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael, he con­vinced them in­stead to ab­stain.

There is also an in­ter­est­ing chap­ter de­voted to Eisen­berg, the self-made busi­ness mag­nate, who cracked the code of how to cre­ate ties with the Chi­nese and held a vir­tual monopoly on trade con­tacts be­tween Is­rael and China, sell­ing agri­cul­tural, in­dus­trial and mil­i­tary prod­ucts.

THERE WERE many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to es­tab­lish diplo­matic ties be­tween Is­rael and China. Some of my lec­tur­ers con­cluded decades ago that part of the prob­lem was that Is­rael was of­ten so anx­ious for some con­tact that it gave/sold China what it wanted with­out de­mand­ing a full re­la­tion­ship in re­turn.

Shai warns that Is­rael should not now ex­pect to focus on eco­nomic as­pects with­out tak­ing into ac­count China’s pos­si­ble de­mands in the diplo­matic arena (or ex­pect­ing it to help con­tain Iran.)

Is­rael, and the West in gen­eral, should also keep in mind that there is no busi­ness com­pany or or­ga­ni­za­tion in the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic that is not ul­ti­mately con­trolled by the Com­mu­nist Party. Shai de­scribes as a “red light” China’s pur­chase of Is­rael’s dairy gi­ant, Tnuva; the aim to win the con­tract for con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion of a rail­road to Ei­lat; Chi­nese in­ter­est in buy­ing in­sur­ance com­pa­nies (which run the pension and sav­ing plans of most Is­raelis); and its in­ter­est and in­volve­ment in build­ing Is­raeli ports and power plants. There is also a po­ten­tial loss through Chi­nese-funded univer­sity re­search cen­ters and projects.

“Where do we de­fine our bor­ders in the close co­op­er­a­tion with the Chi­nese?” Shai asks, and a foot­note refers to an in­ter­view with for­mer Mos­sad head Efraim Halevi who has of­ten voiced con­cerns re­gard­ing Chi­nese ex­pan­sion of its Belt and Road ini­tia­tive. Shai notes that al­ready the Chi­nese have reached a stage in Is­rael in which eco­nomic cen­ters of power could even­tu­ally be trans­formed into strate­gic and geopo­lit­i­cal cen­ters of power. The flour­ish­ing re­la­tions are wrapped with chains rather than strings. China re­mains more com­plex than it is of­ten given credit for.

(Eti­enne Oliveau/Pool via Reuters)

PRIME MIN­IS­TER Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping shake hands ahead of their talks in China in March 2017.

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