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.

2 thoughts on “Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (III)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: