by Carice Witte
In early 2010, I met Zhang Yangjia, a graduate student in economics from Nanjing University who was preparing a presentation for a class on the development of the Israeli economy since the state’s beginnings in 1948. She wanted to learn how this small, distant country, born of seemingly nothing, had quickly developed to have first-rate welfare, healthcare, education, and financial institutions. She wanted to place the statistics and numbers in their proper context to understand this apparent miracle. She was thirsty for knowledge, but even with the university library and internet research tools at her disposal, her ability to research was limited due to sparse availability of books, publications and articles in Chinese. My personal inquiries over the years have revealed that indeed, into 2010, there remains a dearth of reliable Chinese language source material on Israel and the Jewish people.
Yangjia is part of a growing trend of young Chinese academics and business people professionals who desire to learn more about the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. As China becomes a more active player in Middle East affairs, starting with energy negotiations and expanding to regional stability and other diplomatic issues, Chinese academics and scholars have recognized the prerogative of enhancing their knowledge of Israel. The recent publication in Chinese of Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s best-selling book Startup Nation then sparked the curiosity of China’s entrepreneurial-minded community. Would-be innovators seem eager to learn how a country lacking natural resources and hampered by a 63- year-long ongoing conflict with many of its neighbors could achieve such high levels of success.
Since 1985 the number of Chinese institutions invested in teaching Jewish studies has steadily grown. Today in China there are nine centers dedicated to Jewish studies, hosting classes on Hebrew language, Talmudic studies and Rabbinic literature. Of these, only one, the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, touches on matters pertaining to the state of Israel. Today there are about 150 Chinese students studying in Israeli universities, a number which is projected to grow significantly over the next few years.
Despite the strong increase in student and academic demand to understand this small nation with 7.5million Jewish, Muslim and Christian citizens, basic resources to develop a comprehensive understanding of Israel are unavailable in Chinese. A plethora of books on the Jewish people, Jewish civilization and the secrets of Jewish money-making tactics appear on bookshelves in China. However, the number of materials published on the modern state of Israel can be counted on one hand. This also holds true for online sources. Although news items regularly appear in Chinese media on the Arab-Israeli conflict, analysis of Israel’s historical underpinnings and a broader view of Israeli society are scarce.
While trade and business development between China and Israel continue to forge ahead, there is poor understanding of each other’s culture, history and even political systems. Such imbalances could hamper the long term strength of ties between the two nations. For the people of China and the people of Israel, both of whom place heavy and significant emphasis on education and informed viewpoints, this situation should be promptly remedied.
Fortunately, conditions are now ripe to fill this vacuum. There is demand for knowledge, on both sides, a mutual appreciation by Jews and Chinese for each other’s past, current and potential contributions. Even within China’s politburo circles, there is awareness that Israel Epstein, Sidney Rittenberg, and Sidney Shapiro – all Communist Party supporters in the early days of the PRC – were Jewish. There is a clear unmet need and a key opportunity to influence a future of positive interactions. A number of organizations are beginning to address this gap including Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL).
SIGNAL is an independent non-profit organization created to enhance the strategic, diplomatic, cultural and economic relationship between China and Israel through academic cooperation. Through its strong emphasis on long term China-Israel academic programming, SIGNAL is establishing a foundation for enduring, multi-level partnership between China and Israel that will ensure long-term cooperation between the two nations. This should lead to a strong appreciation by the Chinese of the multifaceted nature of Israel and its people.
Based in Israel, SIGNAL operates its programming in both countries. In Israel, Chinese students are taken on day trips to get to know the land, the people, the customs and history as well and invited to attend semi-annual seminars at various Israeli universities. Such programming aims to provide background knowledge on the country where they are studying and offer an arena for students from China to share their experiences, gain new perspective and build a support system amongst themselves.
In China, SIGNAL coordinated the first contact between the municipality of Chongqing and Israel’s Embassy in Beijing. A few months after this initial introduction, Israel’s Ambassador, Amos Nadai, presided over Chongqing’s first-ever Israel Business Forum there and officiated over the start of SIGNAL’s Israel Studies Program at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU). The Ambassador called the program “a significant contribution to greater mutual understanding between our nations.”
SIGNAL’s main programming within China is its Israel Studies Programs for Chinese universities. Working in collaboration, SIGNAL and universities across China are developing the first comprehensive programs for undergraduate and graduate study in China on Israel as a modern nation- state. Just as Israeli universities have programs in China Studies, the SISU Israel Studies Program is to be the first of its kind in China, a parallel effort to teach Israel Studies in China. Thanks to the initiative of Dr. Fu Xiaowei and her Jewish Studies Center, the forward thinking administration of SISU and the good work of the new China-Israel academic organization, SIGNAL SISU is laying the groundwork to launch the country’s first Israel Studies Program. Embassies of both nations have expressed this as a historic milestone in the development of Sino-Israel academic relations.
Reaching beyond location-based programs, SIGNAL will soon launch its Virtual Resource Center, an academic website providing comprehensive information on Israel and its people in Chinese. The site will include articles on Israeli history, culture and society. It will provide answers posed by users about this unique nation. The Virtual Resource Center (VRC) will include information on Israel’s universities and how to apply to the vast range of degrees that are taught in English. In addition to essays, articles and other academic materials, the VRC will have a Video Channel providing Chinese language narrative to the many sites of great historical and cultural significance in Israel.
Israeli academia has been ahead of the curve in its commitment to Chinese studies. Hebrew University in Jerusalem opened its first Chinese class in 1958, more than three decades before official relations began between the two countries were established. Today, Israeli universities have waiting lists
of Israeli students from around the country wishing to enroll in Chinese classes. There are workshops and seminars held on an almost weekly basis on issues related to China and Sino-Israel relations, topics ranging from trade policy to re-assessments of Confucian texts. In line with recent global trends, the Ministry of Education in Israel aims to incorporate China into its educational curriculum; it is considering the national incorporation of Chinese language instruction into primary and middle schools. Already a pilot program has a few hundred children in grammar school and junior high learning Chinese.
Sino-Israel relations are entering a new era of deeper ties and interconnectedness in the political and economic arenas. However, such formalized institutional structures can only succeed in the long-term if they are understood to support the interests of the greater public. This is an opportune moment to reach beyond superficial perceptions of one another’s political process and regional conflicts, and to gain truer understanding of each other’s existence by envisioning creative areas of cooperation between the two states through academic interchange.
The past five years have ushered in a strong wave of growing business relations between Israel and China. Now, as Israel turns 63, the coming five years have the potential to bring the dawn of strong intellectual, academic and scholarly relations. Strengthening ties between Israel and China will help not only scholars, business people, and government officials, but will extend to broader regional peace and stability.
Carice Witte is the Founder/Executive Director of SIGNAL; Aurora Carlson, SIGNAL’s Head of Strategic Research assisted with this article.
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.
You can read more from the current issue of Asian Jewish Life here.