Why are China and its citizens so interested in Israel and Judaism? Books on the subjects sell briskly in the country, and courses in Jewish history, culture and literature are popular. Entrepreneurs have reportedly even relied on a Chinese edition of the Talmud to make business decisions.
Prof. Xu Xin, likely China’s leading scholar on Judaism and Israel, agrees that keenness in this area is high.
“Many students take courses on Judaism at college,” Xu told The CJN in an email interview. “Books on Judaism sell well. The fact that more and more Chinese are interested in Talmud is an example. Chinese companies, as well as officials, show their interest, too.”
One of the “major” reasons for the interest, Xu said, is that Israel is considered a nation of start-ups “and many people believe the innovation of Israelis has everything to do with Judaism.”
Xu might be the leading exemplar of that strong interest. He is the director of the Glazer Institute for Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University, president of the Chinese National Institute of Jewish Studies and the author of several books on the Jews of China.
The academic “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 rumour,” noted a 2014 profile in the online magazine Tablet.
To that end, Xu launched the Institute of Jewish Studies in 1992, the first of its kind in Chinese higher education.
“Seeing Israel Through China’s Eyes” will be the topic of a talk Xu is slated to give at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue in Toronto on Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.
The talk comes at a time when Sino-Israel relations have been growing. In 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to China, the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister in six years. The trip was thought to signal growing Chinese interest in Israel’s high-tech industry, as China attempts to shift from a manufacturing to an innovation and knowledge-based economy.
China only established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The reasons for the late date, Xu suggested, are “political”: both governments missed an opportunity to establish formal ties in the early 1950s.
“Please remember,” he noted, “that China and Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries did not have formal relations either before 1990.”
While China has supported “the Palestine cause,” the government believes “Israel has the right to be a country of its own. In other words, China never supported the idea to destroy Israel or deny the right of the existence of the State of Israel,” he said. The two-state solution “is her stance.”
Officially, the China’s communist government recognizes just five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. The country’s Jewish population, which is estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000, is too small to present a concern to the leadership, Xu said.
Besides, the government believes Judaism is limited to ex-patriates. “Since China does not believe there are Chinese Jews, her policy never covers Judaism,” Xu said. Thus, China allows scholars to study Judaism and ex-pats to practice it.
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One may not associate China with classic anti-Semitic tropes, but Xu confirmed that Jews are widely believed to control banks and the media in the West, and are unusually successful in business. In China, however, that’s meant as a compliment – a sign of accomplishment.
“This impression (of Jews) is positive in general,” Xu explained. “Had Jews achieved nothing or little, no Chinese will be interested in them.”
Xu’s talk will be presented by Kulanu Canada, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.