Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No One Ever Heard Of Israel

Traveling in China as an Israeli is a strange experience. Usually when traveling at some tourist location, be it a guest house, a hotel elevator, or walking the Great Wall of China, the question always arises: “Where are you from?.”

Whenever an Israeli answers, “Israel,” there is usually always a reaction. Sometimes the conversation zooms away onto the other travelers trips to Israel, or wish to travel to Israel, the travails of Israel; the dangers or lack of danger; the political situation: but sometimes a pregnant silence is the beginning and end of the subject, which then politely switches to something else. Anything else.

These reactions are common with Europeans and Americans. The pregnant pause indicates a suspected anti-Israeli bias. But in China, among Chinese, the pregnant pause indicates a complete and utter lack of knowledge of the subject matter. Most Chinese have never heard of Israel, pronounced Isaleah in Chinese.

“Where are you from?” they ask. “Israel,” you answer, and they look at you like dumb cows waiting for the electric shock then the hammer to the brain.

“Israel,” you repeat. Then you get, “Ah, Italia” When you shake your head, they get that glazed looked. Some say, “Middle East,” and nod a few times. If you try to elaborate, saying, “Jewish,” and point to yourself, they stare at you. Should a point of illumination occur, you see a glimmer of recognition, a light in their eyes, and they smile (the Chinese love to smile, and have great smiles) and say, “Ah, Jud High” which means Jewish in Chinese. And then inevitably you get, “Einstein. Very Clever.”

The traveler at that point wants to be polite, and not bring up the fact that the word Jew is about the only thing they have in common with Einstein.

Sometimes the Chinese interviewer then brings up another famous Jew, “Marx.” But only those who have been to university. A few even mention “Mosizes” Moses. And then a discussion starts about which culture is older, the Hebrew or the Chinese. In fact, you explain, believe it or not, the Jewish culture, that means Abraham in about the year 2000, and Moses in about 1400, and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., actually predate most of China’s golden age.

One learns that the Emperor Chin unified China in the 3rd century B.C. The Great Wall was then just a jumble of protective fences around various warlord’s holdings. He fought them all, defeated them all, killed so many he became a mass murderer by today’s standards, ( he reportedly killed all the thousands of workers who constructed the world-famous Tera Cota soldiers, so he would have company in the after-life) and connected the wall into one 1,000 kilometer structure stretching as far as the eye could see.

One explains that by then the Hebrew tribes had been unified for 800 years and the Temple had been built, destroyed, and rebuilt. Moses was writing in Hebrew long before the Chinese. These facts come out in discussion with the Chinese guides, all of whom studied at some college or another, a few at universities. They are of course duly impressed by the rich Jewish/Hebrew culture. But these educated guides and waiters with college degrees are rare.

One o guide was from a province in the far West of China along the Kazakhstan border. He explained that China had fifty-five ethnic minorities. The explanation came as the travelers under his tutelage toured a Buddhist temple in Kunming, a city of approximately 8,000,000 people. The Buddhists, he explained, were an ethnic minority. He said that only three religions are recognized by the Chinese authorities, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Jews are not on the list. Neither are Moslems, or Kurds, or Mongols, or Yugurs. The guide said his parents were Moslem, but not fanatic. He said he wasn’t observant, but still only ate Hallal (non-pork dishes) and abstained from alcohol. He mentioned that some of the men in his province had joined up with Al-Qaida. So all wasn’t perfect in China when it came to minorities.

“Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in China,” said Dvir Ben Gal, an Israeli who has lived in Shanghai for six or seven years, and gives tours of ‘Jewish Shanghai.’ The fact that the Jews aren’t officially recognized in China has created some difficulties. Dvir has made it a pet project of his to salvage all the Jewish headstones he can find in Shanghai. He wants the government to establish a memorial to these Jews, but the government refuses. It’s all part of the Jewish problem China faces: Jews aren’t officially recognized in China. The tombstones are a sore subject. Don’t even think about mentioning the bodies in the lost cemeteries. “We concentrate on the living, now,” Dvir said, quoting a local Rabbi. “It would endanger our relationships with the Chinese to bring up these topics.”

Back in the mid 1850’s, after the Opium Wars, the British and French took over Shanghai. They couldn’t decide which country should issue entry permits, so they decided amongst themselves that no one would, thus Shanghai became an open port. “Back then, no one paid much attention to what the Chinese wanted,” said Dvir.

The fabulous, informative, five-hour tour he lead began at the “Peace” hotel along the river in downtown Shanghai. An impressive art-nuevo building, the Peace hotel was originally called the Cathay, a word for China. The hotel was built by an Iraqi Jewish immigrant to China named Sasson. The 11-story structure is closed for repairs these days, but still that’s where the tour began. And with it an explanation of how the Jewish Iraqi businessmen like Sasson and Kadouri, who came to Shanghai and started their vast fortunes essentially built up Shanghai into a modern commercial center.

Along the way they also built impressive buildings, like a 255 room mansion, nationalized by Chairman Mao and turned into a Children’s Theater smack dab in the middle of the “People’s Park.” Then there was Ohel Rachel, and Ohel Moshe, synagogues put up by the Sassons, Kadouris, or Waldoons, in memory of a father, mother or other relative.

Ohel Moshe became a shelter for the Mir Yeshiva when they fled Europe during World War Two. And Ohel Leah became a storehouse for Chinese debris. Lately Ohel Moshe was turned into a museum, some say because the Chinese were concerned that the spillover from the much-anticipated Beijing Olympics would sour Jewish visitors to Shanghai once they realized the shape of former Jewish landmarks.But it is not a synagogue. No Sefer Torah is allowed in it, nor are prayers. The museum shows a short film on Jewish Shanghai, but mostly it focuses on who the Jews were before they arrived in Shanghai, centering on Krystalnacht and the Nazi period.

Dvir pointed out that no mention is to be made of the fact that the Chinese destroyed Jewish cemeteries first in the white heat of the ‘cultural revolution’ and then in the rush to build skyscrapers, tossing the tombstones into slimy swamps, or using them in one form or another. Once Dvir began to unearth these tombstones he realized that the government was embarrassed by this cavalier treatment of the Jews’ ancestors remains, since the Chinese really do revere their own ancestors. One could see graves, actually small mounds with headstones, out in the fields all through the country. Only in the large cities was cremation enforced.

Dvir said that he wanted Ohel Moshe to be the venue for a memorial to the Jews whose graves were desecrated, but the government said no. There is also a Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, written about by many people. Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal lived there for nearly eight years as a refugee. The Ghetto began with White Russians fleeing the Communists, then filled up with European Jews fleeing the Nazis. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai more trouble befell the Jews once the Nazis decided the Japanese had to herd all of Shanghai’s Jews into the Ghetto. The ultimate Nazi plan was to exterminate Shanghai’s Jews, but the Americans dropped an atom bomb on Japan and the war ended before the Japanese got around to adhering to Nazi directives.

Today the Jews of Shanghai, who number several hundred, meet five times a year in Ohel Leah, in the People’s Park, to celebrate Purim, Israel’s Independence Day, and other events. The Jewish population is made up of businessmen, hi-tech people serving a few years in China, and ex-patriots teaching English. The main focus is Beit Chabad, which amazingly attracts up to 200 people for a Friday night service, and full meat meal. Most are tourists, or businessmen traveling through, but some Israeli hi-tech people who are residents, while not religious, said they come to keep connected to Judaism and Israel.

When asked why the congregation couldn’t get possession of Ohel Moshe or Ohel Leah the traveler is told, “Jews aren’t recognized. And the government can’t give away land to private people.” About Jewish recognition, one was told, “If they recognize the Jews, then what about the other fifty-odd ethnic minorities. In China everything is connected to something else. Give the Jews a building, what about the Baptists, or the Moslems?” While the Jews have synagogues, like Beit Chabad, and the Moslems Mosques, neither is officially recognized. And when it comes to minorities, the list is long and the Jews are nowhere near the top in importance or numbers.

Beijing even has a Kosher restaurant, a Chabad congregation, and even a liberal one, a mix of Conservative/Reform and Reconstructionist congregants. In total about 4,000 Jews live and work in China. Peretz Rodman is the Rabbi of the Liberal congregation, and visits his ‘kehila’ from his home in Jerusalem several times a year. Lately he has begun conducting Sunday school lessons using long-distance Internet learning.

The Jews in China are comfortable. The old-line families, the Sassons and Kadouris moved their businesses to Hong Kong, or London, after the Communist revolution, but are still doing business n China.. In the long history of China, Jews and Chinese, hardly crosses paths hence there is no animosity. Some scholars postulate that Confucius, who predated Buddha, actually espoused some teachings that had distinct Hebrew tones to them. Confucius was known to be a voracious reader and scholar with far-reaching interests so who knows. Whatever the reasons, Jews are accepted in China without prejudice. To the Chinese, the Jews and Israelis are just another brand of white man. And that, for Jews, and Israelis, is something rare indeed.