As a secular half-Jew living in Korea, I was shocked by the report. In the 12 years I have spent here, I have experienced plenty of cultural misunderstandings, but little anti-Semitism. Other Jews I spoke to in Korea felt the same way; the majority told me that they had never experienced anti-Semitism of any sort. In fact, the opposite was true: Most assume that Koreans love Jews.
There are occasional murmurings that Jews are cheap, or they think they’re better than everyone else, but these are rare—and more often than not they come from other foreigners, not Koreans. In the end, according to the people I interviewed, the survey’s problems with methodology, assumptions about cultural values, and simple translation overstated the problem. Mostly the Jews here described an exuberant Korean philo-Semitism, even a belief that Jews stand as an example to Koreans, many of whom believe they need to emulate Jews if they want to punch above their weight in the world arena.
“Koreans,” said Rabbi Osher Litzman, who is based in Seoul, “love the Jews.”
The first Jews in Korea were soldiers: Russian Jews in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and then American and Soviet Jews during the Korean War of 1950-1953. Korea’s first semi-permanent Jewish settlement developed after that, made up almost entirely of American Jewish servicemen. It was centered around U.S. Forces Korea headquarters in Yongsan Garrison, central Seoul.
The American author and rabbi Chaim Potok served as the Jewish chaplain there from 1955 to 1957. He set up a Jewish worship center where services were conducted on the High Holidays. Though it was a U.S. military installation, other Jews living in the country were able to attend.
In the 1990s, South Korea opened up to the world, and Jewish businesspeople, English teachers, diplomats, and others came from other countries. The center for Jewish activity remained Yongsan and affiliated bases, but it was increasingly difficult for civilians to participate because they now had to be signed in to get on base. Some nationalities, including Israelis, were barred from the base entirely, for security reasons. Kosher food was available at the commissary but only to soldiers and Department of Defense civilians.
In 2008, it was announced that Yongsan Garrison would be returned to Korean civilian use, and USFK headquarters would move south to Pyeongtaek. This meant there would be no more services for Jews in Seoul. The Jewish chaplain at the time called Chabad in America and asked that a rabbi be dispatched to Korea. Chabad House Seoul was finally established in 2011 to provide services, kosher food, and any other services Jews might need. In 2012, they got a Torah scroll, and the basement of Chabad became Korea’s first full-fledged, if tiny, civilian synagogue, serving a population estimated at several hundred. Religious Jews tend to congregate around Yongsan, where they can be close to both Chabad and the base, but there are Jews all across the country—from the DMZ in the north to Jeju Island in the south, many of them isolated from any other Jews.
Litzman has been Korea’s sole civilian rabbi for six years. Though he is ultra-Orthodox, he bristles when asked which denomination he is; in a community as small as this one, such distinctions become less important. “There’s no difference between Jews, as long as we are Jews,” he told me. “This community is for every Jew, no matter how practicing, or religious, or background, or knowledge. As long as he is here, he is welcome.”
Litzman’s initial impression of Korea when he arrived was that it was a very busy country, forever moving. “At the same time, we saw kindness from people,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about buying vegetables, for example, but we saw people going out of their way, showing us directions to certain places. Everything a foreign person needs when he’s coming to a foreign country.”
The Jewish community is a tiny drop in a tiny pond of foreignness. South Korea has a minuscule foreign population of only 3 percent, and most of them are Chinese-Koreans. Jews only stand out in that they are (predominantly) white and do not speak Korean. Most blend in seamlessly with the English teachers, businesspeople, soldiers, and Western students in the country.
Litzman, however, stands out. He travels in a full rabbinical outfit, with a beard, hat, tzitzit, and long black coat. He says he has never experienced any anti-Semitism in the country. “Koreans are not ashamed to look at a person,” he said. “And they express their thoughts right away. So, many times I see Koreans looking at me, and they say, ‘That’s very nice,’ about the beard. Or the cap on my head. It’s only a positive response. Many times, taxi drivers say, ‘Jews, you are number one!’ ”
When they arrive in the country, many Jews are often aghast at how, once they tell Koreans they are Jewish, they are treated as though they’re the lights of brilliance upon the world. “On two separate occasions, I’ve had Korean friends tell me that they had heard that Ashkenazi Jews and Koreans were statistically the most intelligent,” said Jesse Borison, 30, a U.S. Airman who has been stationed in Korea for seven years. “They encouraged me to marry a Korean woman so that we could have a savant-baby.”
Zachary Green, 25, an English teacher from Pittsburgh, says his Jewish heritage gained him a certain cachet with Koreans. “Whenever I told a Korean that I was Jewish, that person almost always seemed very impressed. He or she assumed that I was very smart,” Green told me. “I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the respect, envy, and admiration that came with telling people I was Jewish.”
Shiri Harson, 35, came to Korea from Canada 10 years ago as an English teacher, and says her Jewishness was met with praise and appreciation. “I remember getting a big thumbs-up from the director of my school for wanting to teach the kids about Hanukkah alongside doing the regular Christmas stuff,” she said. “Some of my Korean colleagues were interested in the food we ate on some holidays, and so I obliged. I brought in potato pancakes and the lot for Hanukkah, and some Pesach food as well.”
Boston-based Korean-American and Jewish author Euny Hong told me: “If anything there’s a kind of admiration. The stereotypes associated with Jewry in Europe for a thousand years, they’re not an issue in Korea.”
Apart from being seen as highly intelligent, Jews are often told by Koreans they are good with money and occupy important positions in government and media—positions Koreans covet. This, perhaps, is where the disconnect between the ADL survey and Jewish perceptions in Korea occurred. “[The ADL] asked the question, ‘Do you think the Jews have too much power?’ ” Litzman said. “Everything was about ‘too much.’ What can you answer when everyone is asking about ‘too much’? If you say ‘no,’ what do you mean, it’s too little?”
“The questions were not clear for Koreans,” Litzman continued. “For them, ‘too much’ means ‘a lot.’ So, what’s wrong with it? There’s nothing wrong with it. They admire this and they want to be the same. One of the questions was, ‘Do the Jews control the media too much?’ or something like that. Koreans also want to [be influential in media]. They look at it as a model.”
The ADL admits there were problems with its survey, though it stands by the general findings. The Jerusalem Post reported in June that Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, singled out the results from South Korea as examples of where fine-tuning is necessary for future surveys. “The ADL decided to check why South Korea ranked so high on the index,” said Foxman, “only to discover that cultural norms affected the respondents’ answers.” Regarding the high number of Koreans who thought Jews were more loyal to Israel than their home countries, Foxman noted: “‘We had meetings with South Koreans since the poll, and they say to us, ‘We want all South Koreans to be loyal to South Korea wherever they may be. So by us, it’s a positive. Jewish success or power and control of finance to us is positive.’ ”
The spread of Christianity has also affected how Koreans see Jews. Once solidly Buddhist and Confucian, Koreans have recently embraced Christianity—especially Catholicism and American-style evangelical Protestantism—in increasing numbers. This has led to an interest in their Old Testament elder brothers. American English teacher Lyndsay Kravit, 26, told me that she is often stopped by Christian proselytizers on the streets of Seoul. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Are you Christian?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I’m Jewish.’ And they say ‘Oh! Very good! Friend!’ ”
In fact, an interest in Judaism has made the Talmud a best-seller in Korea. Litzman runs regular Talmud and Torah classes for Koreans, most of whom have no interest in converting; at Yongsan Garrison, there are Koreans who have been regulars at Friday night service for 30 years and know the liturgy better than many American Jews do. A 2011 story from The Jewish Chronicle, “Why South Koreans Are in Love With Judaism,” estimates there are more Talmuds in Korean homes than Israeli ones. The story quotes a Korean mother who said, “The stereotype of Jews here is that they are ultra-intelligent people. Jews have come out of nowhere to become business chiefs, media bosses, Nobel Prize-winners—we want our children to do the same. If that means studying Talmud, Torah, whatever, so be it.”
Finally, the similarities between Jews and Koreans are often noted: the importance of family, the emphasis on education, and the fact both came from impoverished, persecuted backgrounds to thrive in the 21st century. Lee Chang-ro, of the Korean Ministry of Education, told The Jewish Chronicle: “Koreans and Jews both have a long history of oppression and surviving adversity with nothing but their own ingenuity to thank. There are no natural resources to speak of in Korea, so, like the Jews, all we can develop is our minds.”
Hong, who converted to Judaism in her early twenties, agrees that both Koreans and Jews are fixated on formal education, but she feels other similarities between the cultures have been exaggerated, or are in some cases incorrect. “To me what was attractive were the differences,” Hong said. “In the architecture of the Jewish family, the matriarch has a very important role, and it’s also matrilineal. So, the role of women and the role of children are both very different [from Koreans].”
In Jewish culture, Hong points out, children have a very important role, and are taught to ask questions and be assertive. This is the complete opposite of what most Korean children are traditionally taught. “At every Passover or Seder that I’ve ever been to, not only are children actively involved, but there’s always been a theological discussion with them,” Hong said. “‘Why do you think the Jews did this?’ ‘Why did the Pharaoh do this?’ ‘Why did God respond in that way?’ These are rather advanced questions for a child, and in Korean culture, it’s not a priority to foster that kind of questioning. It’s kind of revolutionary in a way.”
Referencing a common expression about Jews, Hong said: “In the terms of how society is supposed to function, no, you’re not supposed to have ‘two [people], three opinions’ in Korean culture.”
There is also a dark side to Korean philo-Semitism. Jews may be beloved, but they are often beloved because of the same stereotypes they’re hated for elsewhere. Adam Rosenthal, 33, a professor at Daejin University in Pocheon, worries that Jews in Korea have become “a brand.” Though he appreciates that Jews have been “held on a pedestal” here, he fears for the reasons behind this phenomenon. “I think any time one group within a population holds up a different group within a population for criteria that may or may not really exist as general truths, you’re operating on a slippery slope,” Rosenthal said. “And I think it can lead to not just misunderstanding, but real friction down the road. And you know, unfortunately when you make decisions based on those stereotypes, you run into all kinds of trouble.”
American English teacher Alen Betrovic, 25, who is not Jewish, told me about the time he was called in to a presentation by the Korean principal at his school. The presentation was in Korean, which he didn’t understand, but he saw a lot of pie charts and graphs, and a picture of Steve Jobs. He later found out it was about Jewish power in America. “The principal read a book about how Jews are 2 percent of the American population but control 90 percent of its wealth, and how Koreans must be more like the Jews,” Betrovic said.
Regarding Korean reverence of Jews being based on antisemitic stereotypes, Hong said, “I think there’s definitely an aspect of that, and if you asked Koreans ‘What do you admire about Jewish culture?’ those are the things that would come up. It wouldn’t be Maimonides, most likely. I think it is definitely based on the negative stereotypes—that Jews have figured out how to get ahead.”
The idea of emulating Jews in order to get ahead in the world has gotten other people’s backs up as well. On the blog +972, Mairav Zonszein wrote: “I can’t blame the South Koreans for being interested, and it is indeed a compliment of sorts—but it brings up a point that I have written about before: the fetishization of Jews, whereby singling Jews out for greatness is the same as discriminating against them or stereotyping them.”
American Amy-Louise Ahava, 30, was an English teacher in Korea for two years and found that many of her students believed Jews had a “secret technique to learning.” She also had trouble having her cultural practices respected. “Several times when eating with coworkers they would become upset if I did not eat pork or shellfish, explaining to me that since I was in Korea I had to eat like a Korean,” Ahava said. “No matter how much I told them it was against my culture, they would dismiss my customs as unimportant.” She also had to call in sick for Yom Kippur in order to get the holiday off.
Insensitivity can often reign in Korea, even without malice. “There was this disturbing phase where people were reading the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” said Hong. “It’s not something they talked about a lot, but I think if you asked [Korean] people about [the book’s] tenets, they would believe a lot of them.” Recent years have even seen a certain fetishization of the Nazis. According to the ADL survey, half of all Koreans didn’t know about the Holocaust. Swastikas on jackets, motorcycles, bathroom walls, and lapel pins are uncommon but not rare. (These shouldn’t be confused with Buddhist swastikas, which are everywhere, have existed in Korea for thousands of years, and point the other direction from Nazi ones.) Nazi-themed bars, cafés, and computer gaming rooms, including at least three “Hitler Bars,” exist in some towns, where they exhibit Nazi memorabilia and pictures of the fuhrer. The phenomenon reached the absurd when one bar dressed up a popular cartoon character, Pikachu, as Hitler, and featured him in a window sieg heil-ing, while ordering “one more” glass of beer. I stumbled across one Hitler Bar myself, 10 years ago, in Daejeon. The bartender explained to me that Hitler liked war, and men like war, and so he hoped men would drink in a bar named for Hitler.
However, as Borison pointed out, many Mongolian grills in the West advertise themselves as “Genghis Khan” grills, never considering the pain that may cause those passersby whose ancestors were decimated by the Mongol hordes. Similarly, Japanese imperial flags would raise hackles in Korea, which suffered mightily under Japanese occupation for 40 years—but are common as seemingly benign decoration on clothes in the West. As with the Hitler bars in Korea, it seems ignorance, not hatred, may be the key element at work, no matter what the survey says.
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