The fact that Sh’ma chose the relations among China, Israel, and Judaism as the theme of this month’s issue may seem anomalous to some readers. The theme, though, is both provocative and increasingly timely in our changing world. The relationships between Jews and China and, more recently, Israel and China have deep historical roots. Sephardic Jewish traders arrived in the Far East and, specifically, China, almost 1,000 years ago via the Silk Road. Although the Jewish presence in China since then has not been continuous, China provided a safe haven for Jews leaving Russia and, later, the Soviet Union and, of course, for Ashkenazic Jewish refugees fortunate enough to escape to Shanghai at the beginning of the Holocaust.
But what justifies the theme of this issue today is the growing importance of China to Israel and the increasing connections — economically, culturally, educationally, and even diplomatically — between Jews and Chinese. Beyond the historical context that Irene Eber lays out, contributors to this issue examine the fundamentals propelling China’s interest in Jews and Israel today. Those fundamentals include a fascination with Jewish communal survival and with the enormous role the Jewish people have played in business, science, and culture, as well as with the political context of the Jewish Diaspora and, more recently, Israel. Chinese are intrigued by Israel’s identity as a “start-up nation,” and they want to understand why Jews play such a central role in the world. Unlike the Chinese, we are a very small number of people, disproportionate in our impact.
Shalom Salomon Wald builds on his seminal 2002 essay that created awareness of the growing importance of China as a global power. In this month’s Sh’ma, he expands his argument for the importance of increasing our engagement with the country. Sam Chester updates the narrative of the recent interactions between China and Israel and focuses on the complexities that will shape China’s role in the Middle East and on the broader world stage. Vera Schwarcz underscores the mutual fascination between our two peoples, as well as the necessity of gaining an honest understanding of the guiding principles that unite and separate the Jewish and Chinese people. Lihong Song may surprise readers with his account of the impressive, high-level academic interest in China about Judaism and Jewish history, particularly in a nation that officially eschews an association with communities based on faith.
We hear constantly of the growing power of China in the world economy. Ho-Mou Wu illuminates the rapidly changing face of China’s domestic and international economic goals, which are important to understand, given China and Israel’s growing trade relations. Tsameret Zohar and Alex Pevzner, Israelis with longtime residency in China, are back in Israel trying to build bridges between the two nations. As exchanges between the two nations increase, how do we ensure maximum impact among visitors to the Jewish state? What other steps will be necessary in order to build understanding between Israel and China? Manuela Zoninsein examines how Israel might help China with sophisticated agricultural techniques and innovative uses of water, energy, and technology in order to address its serious environmental and population dilemmas.
Alternatively, Yiyi Chen, a leading biblical scholar and pioneer in peace studies, challenges us to consider the potential role of China in securing peace in the Middle East. And Jonathan Adelman asks us to consider whether China can and will play a meaningful role with Iran, surely a timely subject as the controversy over Iran’s nuclear capability is being negotiated. Geopolitics in the 21st century requires that both the United States and China play mutually compatible roles in the Middle East. It behooves us to understand fully the principals — and principles — at play.
These are but a few of the contributions to this issue of Sh’ma. I believe that reading these timely articles will give you a sense of why China’s infatuation with the Jewish people and its strategic importance in the Middle East are worth thinking about. The trajectory of Jewish history has always been a complex one. The relationship among China, Israel, and the Jewish people is a story still being written.