What the Chinese See in the Jews — Judith Levy

 

Here are a few things many Chinese people believe about Jews, according to a piece in Tablet Magazine by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore:

  1. The Jews run the United States of America.
  2. The Jews control the international media.
  3. The Jews control the world’s money.

These tropes are obviously familiar. What makes them unusual in this instance is that the Chinese see these as features, not bugs.

“Scan the shelves in any bookstore in China,” Sebag-Montefiore writes, “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.” She reports, from a place of deep discomfort, that 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. 

Shortly before Sebag-Montefiore recently visited 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.

Prof. Xu Xin, director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University and the “pioneer of Jewish studies in China,” has made it his mission to challenge the stereotypes and present a more “nuanced” view of Jews to the Chinese — not to undermine Chinese admiration for Jews, but to base that admiration on sound scholarship. He started the Institute of Jewish Studies in 1992, and his students have gone on to open similar programs across China. Judaica has proven a popular subject, with healthy enrollments in classes ranging from Rabbinic Literature to Holocaust Studies to Judaism and the Study of Monotheism. Xu’s History of Jewish Culture is a bestseller. 

Xu’s personal history sheds an interesting light on the desire to connect with and understand the Jews:

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.

China’s official relationship with Israel has grown warmer over the past few years, and that trend is only increasing. Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu visited China last year, a trip widely viewed as a signal that China is interested in Israeli technology to help it “transform itself from a manufacturing to an innovation-and-knowledge-based economy.”

But Sebag-Montefiore suggests that “the geopolitical rationale for greater Chinese-Jewish understanding may pale next to the role that the Jews play in China’s own search to rediscover itself.” Twenty-eight year-old Liu Nanyang, a doctoral student in the Jewish roots of Christianity, found himself wondering several things: first, how it is that Israel is still standing after so many wars?; and second, how have Jews have made so many cultural and scientific advances? Liu believes the key to the Jews’ success is their tolerance of one another and encouragement of debate: 

In China, where religion is perceived as a threat to the ruling Communist Party, Christians are routinely persecuted and worship is allowed only in officially sanctioned churches. “Any ideas or philosophy or cultures are controlled. In the past it was controlled by the imperial emperors and now by the party,” said Liu. “But Jewish people don’t have such a strong political power. So, [Judaism] has more pluralism.”

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.”

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  1. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Interesting post, but I think we need to reverse engineer it to try and understand the Chinese.  Are they ever going to open up?  Will religion ever be set free?

    The ways in which the Jews are characterized in this post as different from the Chinese, is just, fundamentally, the ways in which Westerners in general are different, being more open to different points of view, etc..

    Is there any chance of a Chinese Renaissance based on a transformation of their mindset?

    NB: I am married to a Taiwanese immigrant to the US but am clueless on this issue.  My wife resonates with SSM and other ‘unorthodox’ kind of memes, but seems fine with state autocracy at the same time.  I wasn’t expecting that combination.  Perhaps she was conditioned (aka, spoiled?) by her few years spent initially at MIT/Harvard before I met her.  Deprogramming her has not worked, alas.

    • #1
  2. user_353507 Member
    user_353507
    @RonSelander

    Now the Lord said to Abram…
    I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

    Genesis 12: 1/3.

    • #2
  3. Owl of Minerva Member
    Owl of Minerva
    @

    Making the irony of this all the more intense.

    • #3
  4. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue
    @TrueBlue

    It seems that the Chinese politburo sees what Amy Chua sees.  Namely, a racial group that

    1.  Has a high degree of ethnocentrism

    2.  Believes itself to be special (chosen) and superior to others

    3.  Deep seated insecurity and a never ending persecution complex

    The Chinese, apparently, see themselves and want to find out how they can be as monetarily successful.   Plus the Jews are a safe choice because China is unlikely to go to war with them and they have impeccable socialist bona fides.

    Finally, your average Chinese person has never met any Jews.  Its always easy to romanticize other cultures at a distance.

    • #4
  5. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I think they might be missing one of the Jews key advantages to success. Which is living in open and tolerant societies. Certainly for the Jews of America I think this was their greatest advantage. Jews in oppressive societies never really accomplished much, and neither did anyone else.

    • #5
  6. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Owl of Minerva:
    Making the irony of this all the more intense.

     Wow (from the reference): “In the US Math Olympiad, Asians have grown from 10% of the winners during the 1980s to 58% in the 2000s. In the computing Olympiad, Asians have grown from 20% of the winners in the 1990′s to 50% in 2009–2010 and 75% in 2011–2012. Among the Science Talent Search finalists, Asians were 22% of the total in the 1980′s, 29% in the 1990′s, 36% in the 2000′s, and 64% in the last two years.”

    • #6
  7. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    True Blue:
    It seems that the Chinese politburo sees what Amy Chua sees. Namely, a racial group that 
    3. Deep seated insecurity and a never ending persecution complex

    Hold on, cowboy!

     

    I think you may have the wrong end of the stick.  Jews are not deeply insecure. On the contrary: we are probably the most risk-tolerant and adventuresome people in the world. 

    As for persecution complex: we are not persecuted, generally, today. There are places to avoid being known as a Jew (for example: I do not do business as a Jew anymore – it was a negative). But this is not persecution.

    That does not mean, however, that hundreds of millions of people do not want me dead. Muslims, the world over, celebrate when Jews are killed.

    • #7
  8. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Valiuth:
    I think they might be missing one of the Jews key advantages to success. Which is living in open and tolerant societies. Certainly for the Jews of America I think this was their greatest advantage. 

     It is not enough to live in an open society. You have to have the ingredients to succeed in that society. Why do Jews excel?

    I have argued in the past that it is a peculiar result of Jewish theology: we believe that we can change the world – indeed, that we are commanded to do so! Jews consider themselves G-d’s own partners, imbued with the divine spirit. We believe, for example, that we can change G-d’s mind (in contrast to most Christianity, which sees grace as being essentially independent of our own actions)

    It is easier to have a can-do attitude when you believe your creative powers are on loan from the creator of the universe.

    Thinking that you can change the world is no guarantee of success. But it is easier to accomplish something when you aim high, than if you never fire in the first place.

    • #8
  9. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Valiuth:
    I think they might be missing one of the Jews key advantages to success. Which is living in open and tolerant societies. Certainly for the Jews of America I think this was their greatest advantage. Jews in oppressive societies never really accomplished much, and neither did anyone else.

    When detente with the Soviet Union began, one of the first programs was a musical cultural exchange program. Isaac Stern was selected as a US participant, and was asked about the program. “They send us their Jews from Odessa,” he explained, “and we send them our Jews from Odessa.”

    And even if it were true that oppressive societies don’t have people who transcend oppression — how many of the Soviet dissidents were Jewish? — it doesn’t explain why, in free societies, Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately represented among the scientific and cultural elite.

    • #9
  10. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    iWc: We believe, for example, that we can change G-d’s mind (in contrast to most Christianity, which sees grace as being essentially independent of our own actions)

    See, this is so cleverly put.  It is sheer genius actually, amazing in how much wisdom it packs into one sentence.  Clap, clap, clap.

     

    • #10
  11. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue
    @TrueBlue

    iWc: 

     With regard to the insecurity among Jews, this is not my opinion only.  I would suggest reading almost any Philip Roth book (you can pretty much choose one at random).  Google “Jewish insecurity” and the examples of Jews discussion their feeling of insecurity are endless.  The author of the post, Judith Levy, has herself stated that the reason she moved to Israel from America because she deep down feared that her neighbors (presumably the Christians) would turn on her and she felt more secure around her own people.  If that’s not an example of a feeling of insecurity and a persecution complex, what is?

    As for not having a persecution complex, I would refer you to the website of the Anti-Defamation league.  If you spend your time ferreting out “cyberhate” against your ethnic group, you most certainly have a persecution complex.

    Of course, the above statements don’t apply to all Jews everywhere at all times.  We’re discussing generalities and even prejudices widely held. 

    Finally, becoming doctors, lawyers, and agents on mass doesn’t seem to indicate a spirit of adventure to me.

    • #11
  12. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    iWc:

    Valiuth: I think they might be missing one of the Jews key advantages to success. Which is living in open and tolerant societies. Certainly for the Jews of America I think this was their greatest advantage.

    It is not enough to live in an open society. You have to have the ingredients to succeed in that society. Why do Jews excel?
     

    Maybe it is just a fluke created by their relatively small numbers. I think the most successful Jewish populations are those that were forced into urban environments by forces outside their control. This forced them to adopt urban work skills that over time have proven more profitable. The peasant Jews of Russia weren’t any more productive than their Russian counterparts (while they lived together), but unlike them vast swaths were forced into urbanization by having their lands taken directly or indirectly. Such a thing would not be possible with other larger ethnic groups.

    I wonder if a lot of their outstanding statistics is also not a factor of their relative size. So proportionally they look better, but won’t small minorities always have an easier time of being disproportionately over represented?

    • #12
  13. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    True Blue:
    iWc:
    With regard to the insecurity among Jews, this is not my opinion only…. the examples of Jews discussion their feeling of insecurity are endless. The author of the post, Judith Levy, has herself stated that the reason she moved to Israel from America because she deep down feared that her neighbors (presumably the Christians) would turn on her and she felt more secure around her own people. If that’s not an example of a feeling of insecurity and a persecution complex, what is?

    I am making a distinction that perhaps was not clear. I am certainly insecure in the sense that I know I /my descendants do not have a permanent home anywhere. I am insecure when I see a muslim on the street, knowing that while I have no interest in sacrificing my own life to kill him, there is a non-zero chance that he would be willing to die to kill me. And a real chance he would applaud it if someone else took me out.

    But I am not insecure about what I am capable of achieving in my life and in my sphere of influence. There is nothing I cannot do – except for the limits imposed by mortality.
     

    • #13
  14. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Valiuth:

      I wonder if a lot of their outstanding statistics is also not a factor of their relative size. So proportionally they look better, but won’t small minorities always have an easier time of being disproportionately over represented?

     Plenty of small minorities (0.2% of the world’s population) do not achieve 20% of the world’s nobel prizes.

    • #14
  15. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    True Blue:
     Finally, becoming doctors, lawyers, and agents on mass doesn’t seem to indicate a spirit of adventure to me.

     True enough. It just reflects a culture that values education and hard work.

    But any glance at Israeli society, and its contribution to technologies (medical, semiconductor, software, etc.) shows that there is an enormous ambition found  in the country that is not reflected anywhere else in such concentrations.

    I am not a zionist. But Israel disproves that Jews only do well when they are a small minority.

    • #15
  16. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    iWc:

    Valiuth:

     

    I wonder if a lot of their outstanding statistics is also not a factor of their relative size. So proportionally they look better, but won’t small minorities always have an easier time of being disproportionately over represented?

    Plenty of small minorities (0.2% of the world’s population) do not achieve 20% of the world’s nobel prizes.

     True enough, but most of those were never so highly urbanized. I think that has a lot to do with it. I also think that in general small groups are more likely to be effected by random chance than larger populations (for both good and bad). Thus I think a certain degree of the success of Jews could be attributed to chance rather than their own design.  

    Certainly I think their ability to succeed has be highly predicated on the tolerance of the society they inhabit. With Jews always doing better in more open and tolerant societies, and in the end selecting for those. 

    • #16
  17. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Manfred Arcane:

    iWc: We believe, for example, that we can change G-d’s mind (in contrast to most Christianity, which sees grace as being essentially independent of our own actions)
    For anyone wanting to know how to ‘negotiate’ with G-d, here you go:

    “2 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[b] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[c] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
    26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
    27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
    “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
    29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
    He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
    30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
    He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
    31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
    He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
    32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
    He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

     

     

    • #17
  18. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    So Manfred Arcane, we argue with G-d, and you have to post Genesis to prove it? What we don’t have to do is beg to be saved from “hell fire” on the whim of a god, “maybe, maybe not, depends on how good I think you’ve been, or how long you prayed, or …?”

    Actually, what that passage between G-d and Abraham taught us, was that G-d abides by His own laws and morals, and since we are made in His moral image it’s okay to remind Him..

    • #18
  19. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Good post Judith, and iWe.

    • #19
  20. user_583504 Inactive
    user_583504
    @StevenRosenbaum

    “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.”

    • #20
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