Between East and West

Yoni A. Dahlen
December 26, 2013
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With the pressing forward of the technological revolution, the world as we know it, whether in the scope of business, politics, or culture continues to shrink.  While this global connectivity has been a great success in the marketplace, it has been a disaster to the European political philosophy of nationalism.  The creation of the EU, the rise of outsourced jobs, and the overall trend of mass immigration (whether it be permanent or temporary placement in a country outside of one’s birth nation) has ushered in an age sui generis in the scope of cultural and national identity.

This is profoundly evident in the great divide of government versus public sentiment in the East.  The tsunami of conservative and extremist political shifts in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey have, in defiance, also propagated mass movements of liberal and democratic values disseminated via social media, as well as books, newspapers, and film.  Despite the best efforts of some of these governments to erect the political and national curtains of past generations, the beating pulse of the international community refuses to be suppressed or controlled.

This dissonance has been both a curse and a blessing for Jews around the world, and there is perhaps no better example of this contradiction of interests than in China.  The relationship between the people of Israel and China is a long one and has been, for the most part, marked by protection and hospitality.  Jews have been citizens since the great dynasties of the 7th and 8th centuries, and have added to the culture and trade of the region since their first contact.  China in return, has viewed the Jewish people in a favorable light, offering them protection throughout history, most profoundly after the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Holocaust.

The national-political relationship, however, between the Jews and the Chinese has not been as symbiotic.  This, of course, is a direct effect of the spread of European nationalism to the East, and with it, the creation of both the State of Israel and the People’s Republic of China (established in 1948 and 1949 respectively).  As peoples, the Jews and the Chinese lived together in a symbiotic relationship of trade and culture; as nations, they have existed in mistrusting tension.

The creation of both states led to the looking out for nationalist interests, and inevitably a problematic political understanding.  For Israel, the national interests included strong allies, democratic values, and security.  China, however, already strong and connected, built upon communist values, and isolated from enemies, sought real estate in the oil fields of the Middle East, a national necessity that tied China to the Arab states.  With the creation of two nations, a friendship quickly became unfriendly.

Yet the age of crumbling walls and wireless communication has given voice back to that ancient friendship.  While the government continues to issue unwavering support of Israel’s enemies, the people of China have actively voiced their support for the Jewish people as a religion and as a culture.  Jewish business and mercantile practices have been a great source of inspiration and respect for the Chinese people, and urban centers such as Shanghai continue to pay respect to their city’s synagogues and Jewish observances.  Politically the curtain stands in place, but the friendship between China and the people Israel lays out a carpet of a shared history and respect.

The future of these relationships rests where it has always rested , with the people who learn from one another, who share in each others traditions and customs, and who stand by one another at times of strife and pain.  Nations have suffered under the ringing bells of progress, and while this may come with both blessings and curses, for the Jewish/Chinese relationship every chime is a chime of friendship.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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