Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (III)

Part III: The Limits of Toleration

In part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible; in Part II, I examined the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely; here, in the third and final part of this essay, I explain how the long-term drivers of Chinese policy bode ill for Judaism in China.

The Israel Issue

China has been friendly with Israel for some time, and the two countries formalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Despite positive noises and outward evidence of friendship, however, it would be wrong to exaggerate the degree to which the countries enjoy close ties.

China and Israel remain deeply divided about the Palestianian issue: China does not recognize Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations and has continued to demonstrate a bias toward the Palestinians in any matter of contention between Israel and Palestine. China has built and retains a close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is known to have supported, indirectly or directly, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program despite the threat it presents to Israel.

Bilateral trade between Israel and China is now up to $11 billion. That may seem like a lot, but trade between Israel and the Arab world has reached nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. If push came to shove, Israel would lose, high-tech exports notwithstanding. And push could come to shove if Sino-US relations came to a major falling out. Further, there are indications that the Jonathan Pollard case continues to cast a shadow over Sino-Israeli relations. The Mossad enjoys a legendary reputation in China, and Israel’s willingness to spy on its most important ally has ensured that a close relationship with Israel is perceived by some of China’s realists as an extant security threat

Given these factors and given the evolution of China’s broader foreign policy and defense posture, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of a major crisis or break in relations between China and Israel. A break could arise from any of a number of causes, but is probably less likely than a gradual deterioration of ties. If Israel were to become increasingly reluctant to supply high technology or military technology to China (not unlikely given China’s growing assertiveness abroad), this would slash the value of the bilateral relationship for China. The growing dependence of China on oil from Iran and Arab states, coupled with a decline in the US dependence on such oil because of hydrofracking and environmentalism, would mean that the value of the Sino-Arab relationship would grow substantially. And the need to sustain those relationships in the face of a possible crackdown in China’s Muslim interior could compel the Arab states to demand a quid-pro quo.

A falling out between China and Israel would not necessarily have dire or immediate consequences for Jews in China. It would, however, place Jews under suspicion of being spies or a dormant fifth column in the event of conflict. Thus it is difficult to imagine the rapid and continued growth of a healthy Jewish community in China in the face of any decline in Sino-Israeli relations.

The Latent Xenophobia Question

Jews are seen as foreigners in China, a status that is as much ethnic as political. Short of a significant campaign by the government to make it so, Jews will continue to be seen as foreigners. Given that the government has no compelling reason to single out Jews for preference, any rise in anti-foreign sentiment would be visited upon Jews with the same intensity that would be on non-Jewish foreigners.

As such, the question about the long-term prospects for China to be a haven for Jews rests on the larger question of whether xenophobia is likely to intensify at some point in the future. The answer, of course, is unknowable. But the threat is latent, real, and rooted in China’s evolving relationship with the United States.

China and the US are increasingly at loggerheads over a range of issues, and the two nations seem destined to a degree of political and military rivalry (if not outright conflict) in the foreseeable future. The growth of Chinese nationalism and the increasing focus on America as an active barrier to China’s global rise together thus offer a potential breeding ground for xenophobia.

To this growing powder keg needs only be added a spark in the form of an international incident in which China can claim to be the aggrieved party. The anger and ugly sentiments unleashed in the Chinese after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo, even though government stoked, offered proof of the anger that lies dormant beneath the surface of the Chinese psyche, and how easily it is whipped into violence.

It seems only a matter of time and opportunity before it returns.


When we scan across the breadth of our history as a people, we read of places that offered us refuge in our wanderings, a sequence of nations that allowed us not just to live, but to thrive in their midst. In this list of places lies another list, hidden but implied, of the nations that either murdered their Jews, chased us from their midst, oppressed us, or simply tolerated our presence with odious restrictions. We appeared to prosper in some places precisely because the other places were anything from dreary to deadly for our tribe.

Indeed, even today it is not easy to find a place where all of the conditions exist to occasion the emergence of a vibrant world center of Judaism. Even continental Europe seems determined to demonstrate that it is infertile ground for a renaissance of Yiddishkeit.

Nothing in this essay should be interpreted to suggest that there will be no Jews in China. Even in the depths of the Cultural Revolution, there were Jews in China. Short of a shooting war with the US or Israel, it is impossible to conceive of a China where Jews are rooted out and either imprisoned or expelled.

But there is a difference between mere survival and prosperity, and it now seems clear that China will ever remain a frontier outpost of the Diaspora rather than a center of Jewish society. In this, China joins a long and distinguished list.

After spending three decades studying, living in, and working in China, I have reached this conclusion with great reluctance, and relate it with a heavy heart but hopefully a clear head. And I relate it with the fervent hope that history will prove me wrong, even as I doubt it will.

“If Scripture is the sun, the Talmud is the moon that reflects its light; its authority derives from its claim to interpret Scripture rightly.”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

Evil and the Book Thief

“But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Markus Zusak
The Book Thief

When you think about it, The Book Thief is not a Jewish book in the purest sense of the word. It is not about Jews (although there is a Jewish character, Max). It is not written by a Jewish author, nor does it address Jewish themes.

And yet, as I read the book and watched the movie, there was something profoundly, deeply Jewish about it. It surfaces in this quote.

Judaism does not assume that humans are naturally good, and that evil is an external force to be cast out. Rather, we are made up of inclinations toward both good and evil, and what determines our character, our virtue, our Godliness is how through a process of internal struggle we manage to strike a balance between the two in our deeds.

Zusak’s book is filled with such characters, and if there is a single message to us in his tale it is that we as Jews are asked once again to consider that the German people, despite the atrocities committed in their name and with their silent assent, were not innately evil. Instead, each was engaged in their own internal struggle in the face of events that often outpaced their ability to address them coherently. Zusak can be forgiven such a plea: in so doing he is attempting to honor his parents, themselves postwar refugees from the ruins of Axis countries.

There can be no forgiveness on this Earth for active or passive participation in the unprecedented spasm of hatred and bloodshed that was The Third Reich. Zusak reminds us, however, of the Jewish truism that deeds great and awful are committed by people wrestling with what Abraham Lincoln called “the Better Angels of our nature.” It does not take an evil person to commit evil deeds, any more than it takes a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. The fight against evil is a constant battle to keep the scales tipped on the balance of the good, and to watch for the portents of evil deeds rather than for the coming of evil men.

Richard Dawkins Suggests the Fairy Tales are Harmful to Kids, then Recants

Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’
Ian Johnston
The Independent
5 June 2014

At some point, Richard Dawkins is going to reveal a viewpoint that is itself so pernicious, so inhumane, and so extreme that all but his most ardent supporters will be embarrassed. I suspect this most recent revelation of the eminent evolutionary biologist’s heartfelt prejudices is a step toward that point.

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

He apparently confronted such a backlash in the wake of his remarks (at a science conference, no less) that he felt compelled later to “clarify” them on Twitter. He seems to have discovered that in taking on the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Monkey King, he is losing the plot of his own book, and perhaps a few readers he respects.

I think that Dr. Dawkins misses an even larger point. When we tell children fairy tales that include the supernatural, we do not cause them to recoil from science and discovery. Rather, we awaken them to the understanding that there are still things out there that we do not understand, things that are possible but unproven, and that themselves provide a motive to explore, to discover, to find the unfound. Is that not, after all, what a scientist does? Do we not risk reducing science to sawdust in the mouths of our children if we do not provoke them with wonder and curiosity about the unknown and undiscovered? How in the name of anything Dawkins holds sacred does that serve humanity?

I do not think that Dr. Dawkins is an evil man. I think that he is sincere in his belief that his arguments are made for the betterment of the world. It is possible, however, that in the twilight of his career the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion is frustrated that despite his best efforts, so many intelligent, thinking people continue to entertain the possibility of God, of the supernatural, of magic, and that this frustration is bubbling to the surface.

I wish him peace and happiness, hope he continues his work, and in return ask that he and his followers allow the rest of us to live our lives, teach our children, and read to our families as we see fit.

Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (II)

Part II: The Frayed Welcome Mat

In Part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible. here, in Part II, I examine the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely.

The Chinese Advance; The Foreign Retreats

When China’s reform and opening began, the dome of official xenophobia that covered China began to crack, and then shattered completely. The nation was, for a time, like a child in the world’s cultural candy shop. A foreigner coming to China was welcomed both officially and unofficially. Visa and residency requirements were challenging but not impossible to overcome unless you were incompetent or a miscreant. Over time, the visa requirements eased to the point where a visa could be had for the price of a decent dinner in the course of an afternoon. At one point, there was even talk about making permanent residency – or even citizenship – open to deserving foreigners.

And then that talk ended. At some point, the door stopped its swing opening, and it began to swing shut again.

Today the welcome mat has been worn out. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, perhaps there is paranoia in the Communist Party of China about non-Chinese in such great number in China serving as a destabilizing force, or perhaps xenophobia was the watchword for so long in China’s history that it remains a latent force in China’s relationship to outsiders. Either way, we have witnessed a growing official ambivalence about foreigners that sometimes gives way to outright antipathy.

The friendliness is gone. In its place is often little more than forced courtesy. Smiles from passers-by have turned into suspicious glances. Friendliness to families with one western and one Chinese spouse have turned into angry looks or contempt. Visas are getting harder to get, permanent residency is off the table, and immigration for someone who is not ethnic Chinese is a fantasy.

Foreigners are taxed as if each of us is wealthy, regardless of our true situation. And we will never be allowed to remain in China long enough to benefit from the retirement funds into which we are obliged to pay. There is the slight tang of racist politics in the air, and those of us who are not Chinese remain in the country on what increasingly feels like borrowed time.

The Large Advances; the Small Retreats

The nature of living a Jewish life and the challenges of corporate life in China make it difficult, and nearly impossible, for a moderately observant Jew to live a Jewish life and to remain employed. Socializing in non-kosher restaurants, working through the Sabbath and Holidays, and dozens of workaday challenges drive most of us to build livelihoods wherein we can set our own rules.

But China is not set up for foreign entrepreneurs. To start your own business in China is profoundly difficult, and to keep it operating under a set of commercial laws designed with massive state-owned enterprises and multi-national corporations in mind is enough to drive the most honest merchant to evasion and subterfuge. except in the case of extraordinarily accommodating multinationals – of which there are few indeed – we are offered the choice of foregoing an observant life or foregoing our metier.

If the recent direction of policy is any indication, this will not change anytime soon. Xi Jinping’s approach to sustaining the vitality of the Chinese economy is to make massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) larger, more efficient, and more profitable. The message to small- and medium-sized business seems clear. If the government is going to protect SOEs, they mean to protect them from the competitive threat posed by smaller, more nimble players and from foreign enterprise. To be small and foreign in Xi Jinping’s economy is to be somewhere twixt a forgotten stepchild and an enemy of the State. The scope of freedom for Jews to establish our own business community seems destined to remain circumscribed.

The Institutional Roadblock

Businesses owned by Jews form the pillars of a Jewish community. Yet what forms the foundation and the crossbeams of any such community, determining its resilience, longevity, and importance, are a cluster of religious and secular institutions. Those clusters begin with one or more synagogues (usually more: we each drink our Torah in different doses). Those synagogues then give birth to schools to educate our children; publication societies to provide cultural and religious media; charities and benevolent societies to care for those of us who have fallen on hard times; protective societies to ensure we remain unmolested by society at large and federations to coordinate the varied institutions and to serve as an interface to other faiths.

China makes the creation of such institutions problematic, if not impossible. Chinese law demands government sponsorship for every civil institution and NGO, which implies the need for government involvement and approval that are anathema to a Jewish federation or charity. Establishing primary and secondary schools requires approval of and supervision by a Ministry of Education that is ambivalent – if not hostile toward – religious education. Even if this barrier is jumped, a yeshiva is all but out of the question. China retains and regularly fortifies laws keeping foreigners out of the publishing business, and a faith-based publishing house would surely subject each work to government review before it could be published, especially if it were to be published all or in part in Chinese. And as for synagogues, those that are extant in China today stay out of the government’s way because congregations are small, totally foreign, and deliberately invisible to the outside world.

Creating Jewish institutions is not impossible in China. Creating adequate institutions capable of addressing the basic needs of Jews temporarily resident in China is, however, a far cry from those born of a multi-generational community of sufficient scale to rival their counterparts in pre-1933 Europe, modern Israel and the current-day United States. This will not happen in the context of a polity that bases its ethos on suspicion of religion and its existence on the imperative to control the hearts and minds of the local people.

Next week in the final part of this essay I will talk about the macro-policy challenges that bode ill for a Chinese Jewish community, and wrap up the discussion.

Praying Alone

For a long time I have worried that I do most of my prayer alone, rather than as a part of a minyan. There are many reasons for that, none of which I will bother to discuss here for fear that they will be interpreted as excuses, and that they will detract from my main point.

I have always thought that prayer was required to be done in a minyan, and that Jews were only allowed to conduct their daily prayers alone only when there was no physical way of finding a group with which to daven.

So it was a physical relief to me to read differently in Rabbi Norman Solomon’s superb and highly-accessible Penguin volume, The Talmud: A Selection that the Sages felt otherwise.

However, Mishna regards the three daily services as individual rather than communal obligations; though it is virtuous to join others for communal prayer, individuals recite the daily prayers irrespective of whether they are in the synagogue or together with others.

So that is the distinction. While there is virtue in joining a minyan, the key is to pray. Needless to say, I feel a lot better now.

Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (I)

Part I: Searching for the New Al-Andalus

One of the remarkable features of the history of the Jewish people is that we have spent the past three millennia watching the the center of gravity of our faith migrate across the entire breadth of western civilization. While our hearts have always been in Israel, our bodies have often found themselves far from the land that God promised our forefathers.

Babylon gave us Abraham and, much later, the great sages and the Talmud Bavli. From Spain came the flourishing of Sephardi culture and hundreds of years of our greatest post-Talmud scholars, including Rashi. Egypt and the Caliphate, whence Sephard extended, gave us an upwelling of Jewish thought, embodied by the secret reservoir of the Cairo Geniza and capped by the magisterial works of the Rambam. Eastern Europe became the home of a vibrant Yiddishkeit from which emerged the wonders of the Baal Shem Tov, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism, and the great Gaonim of Ashkenazic culture. Germany brought the Halaskah that compelled our faith to address the challenge of modernity (a struggle that continues today.)

And the United States, today the single greatest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, has provided Jews the newest place where we can live according to our traditions in a manner of our own choosing.

Yet civilizations move through cycles of their own, and if there is but one lesson that we must take from our history, it is that while a civilization on the rise makes a comfortable place for Jews to live, once the decline begins in earnest, we are well-advised to go and find ourselves another home.

A (Jewish) Star Rises in the East?

As I write these words, the United States appears to be in relative decline, but has not yet entered the absolute decline that would signal the end of a civilization. Yet history moves fast, and we are always wise to be on the lookout for where we would go if the tides of time once again turned against us: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offer us two very recent, very cautionary examples of why it is always important to have at least one place to which we can run.

For a long time, I believed that China would be that next place, the home of the new Jewish diaspora, a new refuge from which Yiddishkeit could grow. The signs seemed very good: the country served as a refuge for Jews from around the world in the tumultuous years between the two world wars; there is an abiding respect for Jews that runs deep in the Chinese culture; China has all the marks of a civilization on the rise; there are natural points of commonality between the cultures; and both observant and liberal Jews were working together to build communities and set down roots.

In these signs I saw I put my money where my mouth was: for eighteen years I lived in China, owned property, built a business, and contributed as I could to the creation of a Jewish community. In those years I saw many hopeful signs: the arrival of Chabad; the growing crowds at Shabbat services; the appointment of Beijing’s Chabad rabbi (and de-facto chief rabbi of Beijing) by the organizers of the Beijing Olympics as the rabbi to Jewish athletes and officials at the games; the kashering of the kitchens at the Great Hall of the People when Israeli officials came on a state visit.

Since those days, though, a change has taken place. While I believe that there will always be a Jewish community in China, I have come to despair of the notion that China is the next center of the Jewish diaspora.

In installments over the coming weeks, I will attempt to explain why this is the case.

Judaism is not a Faith of Fear

I spoke with someone yesterday who suggested that Jews have made a lot of our theological choices because we were frightened minorities operating within the context of larger societies who had the ability – and often the will – to oppress or kill us.

There can be little doubt that our collective experiences have shaped our culture. But I took issue to my friend’s broader point. We did not make our theological choices because we were tiny and scared, but because our Law says we must. Our rabbis based their decisions and psak din  on long and learned discussions on Torah, not on political science, and the reasons are documented in the Talmud, in Maimonides, and countless writings in between and since.

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