A recent report in The Wall Street Journal found that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed believe that China has surpassed the United States as the world’s “dominant economic power.” Never mind the fact that the United States has nearly twice China’s GDP or that our young country is no match for the thousands of years of China’s global merchant history.
In general, the history of the Jews in China is long, friendly, and complimentary. As early as the first century C.E., China’s merchant economy brought Jews east along the famed Silk Road. Jewish settlements were established in western China in 960 C.E. and a synagogue was built there in 1163 C.E. Some of the literature documenting Marco Polo’s travels suggests that when he “discovered” China he was surprised to find that Jews were already well established and prosperous there.
My family hasn’t been in China nearly that long. Unlike our forefathers, we traveled west to China from California in August 2010. Commerce and a sense of adventure lured us from the beaches of Santa Monica to the often gray and not-at-all-organic Beijing. My wife and I, our 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, two dogs, and a container of “necessities” accompanied us on this journey.
We joined a community of about 2,000 Jews residing in a city of more than 20 million. As we settled in Beijing, we made an effort to stay involved in Jewish life. We joined Kehillat Beijing, and our children enrolled in its religious school.
Kehillat Beijing, part of the Reform Jewish movement, dates from the late 1970s, when a small group of North American Jews arrived and set up the community-led synagogue. Chabad came to Beijing in 2001 and, in 2011, opened a new Jewish community complex, complete with a kosher restaurant and shops. Chabad also runs Ganeinu, the only Jewish day school in Northern China.
When our children began to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvah, respectively, we used Skype to connect with our community in Los Angeles — Nashuva, a Jewish spiritual outreach movement founded by Rabbi Naomi Levy. And we flew back to L.A. to celebrate the simchas with family, friends, the rabbi, and the Nashuva Band. Although we’ve created a community of friends in Beijing — Jews and non-Jews from around the world — we wanted to be “home” for the simchas.
We are living in China at a time of tremendous change. China’s rapid rise in the global economy has been met abroad with a mixture of admiration and fear. True, China has a tightly controlled society that doesn’t embrace the American values of liberty, democracy, and human rights. At the same time, the country has transformed itself in a couple of generations. We were surprised to discover that the Chinese are the most enterprising and “capitalistic” people we’ve ever encountered. So what are we to make of this as Jews and Americans?
My Chinese friends admire the strength of the Jewish Diaspora, our educational and intellectual achievements, and our entrepreneurial successes. They note that they are the oldest civilization in the East and the Jews are the oldest civilization in the West. Liu Qibao, a senior Communist Party of China official, recently told The Jerusalem Post that both the Chinese and the Jews are great nations with long histories that have made indelible contributions to civilization. He felt that both countries have endured hardships that have contributed to a mutual understanding between the countries.
Jews and Chinese place family, tradition, and education at the center of our beliefs. I think we can look to these shared values as a way of viewing China and its changing role in the world. The emphasis on tradition that Tevye famously sang about in “Fiddler on the Roof” is prevalent in everything the Chinese and Jewish people do. This is essentially another manifestation of wisdom passed down and embodied in culture.
Today’s Chinese are working to overcome the hardships of their agrarian past by pushing the economy up the value chain to manufactured goods and professional services. Students studying abroad return home with a renewed commitment to move their country ahead, having seen that competition and cooperation are both necessary in a global economy.
As Gao Yanping, China’s ambassador to Israel, wrote following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit in China several months ago: “With the interdependence between countries deepening in the globalized world, China and Israel have a shared destiny. The closer our cooperation is, the more benefits will accrue for both our peoples, and the more contributions we will be able to make to regional stability, world peace and global prosperity.”1
Embracing these values may lead us to discover that Americans and Chinese, Jews and non-Jews, have more in common than we thought.email print