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The Chinese Believe That the Jews Control America. Is That a Good Thing?

Prof. Xu Xin’s Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University seeks to establish Chinese scholarship on Jews

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“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.”

Xu was first introduced to Beverly Friend and her husband Jim in the mid-1980s, when the latter was teaching English at Nanjing University; Jim was the first Jew Xu had ever met. In 1986 Xu traveled to America for the first time, where he stayed with the Friends in Chicago. The trip was revelatory: Not only did he learn how to use a fork but he started attending Shabbat dinners and other Jewish celebrations. It convinced him that China might be able to learn something from the West—and in particular, from Jews.

This conviction was rooted in his own country’s recent resurfacing from a traumatic past. Like many teenagers at the time, Xu was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, one of the zealous youths who helped destroy much of China’s own heritage. “I participated in the Cultural Revolution. We all went through the Great Leap Forward,” Xu said, referring to Mao’s push for industrialization that helped lead to a famine in which more than 30 million perished. “We started to feel from the bottom heart there is something wrong with society. China needed new ideas.”

As China began to open up again to the West, Xu read Western literature, which had been banned under Mao. He’d soon realized that his favorite writers—J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth—were Jewish (today, many of their works are translated into Chinese and studied by college and graduate students in China). As psychology became popular, Xu delved into Freud; he also held immense respect for Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the start of American relations with China. Like Salinger, Bellow, Freud, and the godfather of Communism Karl Marx, Kissinger was a Jew. “He was a refugee and an immigrant to the U.S., but within 20 years he had made his way to become secretary of State. How come?” Xu wondered.

The search for an answer to that question became Xu’s mission. He returned from two years in the United States, and a formative official trip to Israel in 1988, convinced that Judaism could provide lessons for a young and hungry new China. “Once we learned, we wanted to teach,” he said. Xu set up university classes, attended international seminars, and translated the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. Eventually, once diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, he founded the Institute of Jewish Studies.

***

If Xu had the sense of discovering something new, the Jews were not exactly strangers to China. Jews likely first arrived in China via the Silk Road almost 1,000 years ago. In the mid-19th century, following the Opium Wars, Iraqi Jews settled alongside British traders in Shanghai, where many made their fortunes. China later accepted Jews taking flight from Russia, who made their homes in the bleak snowy landscapes of northern Harbin. In World War II, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany flooded Shanghai: Most left for Australia, America, or Israel when the Communists gained power in 1949.

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. (China’s own Jewish population, the Kaifeng Jews, have being almost completely assimilated.) High-profile Jewish figures in the Chinese Communist Party’s own history include Sidney Rittenberg, the first American citizen to join the party, and the journalist Israel Epstein, whose funeral was attended by former Chinese President Hu Jintao and former Premier Wen Jiabao.

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The Chinese Believe That the Jews Control America. Is That a Good Thing?

Prof. Xu Xin’s Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University seeks to establish Chinese scholarship on Jews