Prof. Xu Xin’s Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University seeks to establish Chinese scholarship on Jews
By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore|March 27, 2014 12:00 AM
“Do the Jews Really Control America?” asked one Chinese newsweekly headline in 2009. The factoids doled out in such articles and in books about Jews in China—for example: “The world’s wealth is in Americans’ pockets; Americans are in Jews’ pockets”—would rightly be seen to be alarming in other contexts. But in China, where Jews are widely perceived as clever and accomplished, they are meant as compliments. Scan the shelves in any bookstore in China and you are likely to find best-selling self-help books based on Jewish knowledge. Most focus on how to make cash. Titles range from 101 Money Earning Secrets From Jews’ Notebooks to Learn To Make Money With the Jews.
The Chinese recognize, and embrace, common characteristics between their culture and Jewish culture. Both races have a large diaspora spread across the globe. Both place emphasis on family, tradition, and education. Both boast civilizations that date back thousands of years.
In Shanghai, I am often told with nods of approval that I must be intelligent, savvy, and quick-witted, simply because of my ethnicity. While it is true that the Chinese I’ve met are fascinated by—rather than fear—the Jews, these assertions make me deeply uncomfortable.
So, it was with a degree of apprehension that I recently traveled to the former imperial capital of Nanjing to spend the day with Prof. Xu Xin, director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University. The first thing Xu did was suggest lunch. As we sat down to a steaming tofu hot pot, he woefully conceded that many Chinese believe the Jews to be “smart, rich, and very cunning.” Just before my visit to Nanjing, the Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao made international headlines by publicly announcing his ambitions to buy the New York Times and later the Wall Street Journal. In a TV interview he explained that he would be an ideal newspaper magnate because “I am very good at working with Jews”—who, he said, controlled the media.
Yet Chen presumably, like the majority of Chinese, has few concrete ideas about the reality of Jewish history or practices. Xu, the 65-year-old pioneer of Jewish studies in China, is campaigning to change that—and, by doing so, challenging entrenched stereotypes. The diminutive professor has made it his life’s pursuit to present a more nuanced view of the Jewish race and religion to his countrymen: one based on scholarship rather than rumor. To this end he launched the Institute of Jewish Studies in 1992, the first of its kind in Chinese higher education.
Today there are more than half a dozen similar programs across the country, many started by Xu’s former students. In Nanjing, Judaica courses—from Ancient Jewish History to Rabbinic Literature to Holocaust Studies—have proved popular. According to Xu one of the best-attended courses in the institute is Jewish Culture and World Civilization, in which 18 topics are covered in a 20-week semester. It attracts roughly 200 undergraduate students per term. Survey of Judaism and Study of Monotheism, both graduate courses, have enrollments of around 30 to 40.
Strung up around the unheated classrooms of the institute are dated photographs of Jerusalem and fuzzy black-and-white images of the death camps. Bookshelves boast Chinese translations of the Haggadah and Xu’s own books, including his best-selling A History of Jewish Culture. In a glass cabinet sit various teaching tools: embroidered kippas, bronze menorahs, and polished shofars. Thankfully, there is not a “get rich quick” manual in sight.
The institute is funded largely by foreign Jewish donors, who have their own interest in seeing portrayals of Judaism propagated in a more balanced way. “Hatred and intolerance are bred in ignorance,” the executive director of the China Judaic Studies Association, Beverly Friend, a patron of the institute, wrote to me in an email. “The institute provides knowledge.”
… Chinese state media has long championed positive portrayals of the Jews, in part because Judaism, with its ethnically based and non-evangelical nature, has proved less of a threat to the Communist Party than other foreign monotheistic religions, like Christianity or Islam.
… Today China’s authoritarian government is invested heavily in the oil states, including Iran and Iraq. But it is also increasingly forming ties with Israel. … “China finally decided to establish former diplomatic relations with Israel [in 1992] because they believed that being friendly with Jews is good for China’s development and to change China’s image internationally.” If China’s global clout does not yet match its status as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, developing closer ties with Israel and the Jewish Diaspora may be a relatively easy way to widen China’s influence, or so some Chinese leaders seem to believe.
… It is this space and allowance—even encouragement—for debate that has helped Jews make cultural and scientific strides in the world, Liu said he believed: “In the Talmud, for one question they have different answers. But in China we have [either] correct or incorrect. If someone has different opinions, it is difficult to live.”
“Do you know how many Chinese Nobel Prize winners there are?” asked Liu, not waiting for an answer. He didn’t have to. The Chinese have long articulated ambitions to win more Nobel prizes. (No Chinese-born scientist, for example, has ever been awarded a Nobel Prize for work in the mainland.) “The Jewish population is very small but the Chinese is big,” Liu said. “Compare that, if you will. When we know that the Jewish people are so successful in both science and human studies, we feel that maybe we can learn from them.”
As the afternoon drew to a close, I mentioned Chen Guangbiao, the billionaire who declared he is good at working with Jews. Liu was exasperated by such reductions.
“In their minds, Jewish people control the banks in America. It means for them that Jewish people control the world, controls the governments,” he railed, shaking his hands in disbelief. “I feel it’s a joke.”
Prof. Xu was more understanding. “Stereotypes are overemphasized. But in China this is positive,” he said calmly. After all, he added: “Had the Jews achieved nothing, no Chinese would be interested in them.”
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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, a Sydney-based journalist, lived in China from 2009 to 2014. Her Twitter feed is @cmontefiore.
… there is a risk of the resurgence of “the old canard of a Jewish world conspiracy” could seep into China. To date it has not.