Influencing How Jews Are Seen in China: It’s All about Nobel Prizes and Tolerance of Dissent

Tablet has an article reflecting Jewish angst over the possibility that the Chinese might think that Jews run America (“The Chinese Believe That the Jews Control America. Is That a Good Thing?“). Unlike in the U.S. where the ADL will threaten the livelihood of anyone who says that Jews have any power or influence, one might think that the Chinese are free to make up their own minds about the subject based on rigorous academic research. Think again.

“Do the Jews Really Control America?” asked one Chinese newsweekly headline in 2009. The factoids doled out in such articles and in books about Jews in China—for example: “The world’s wealth is in Americans’ pockets; Americans are in Jews’ pockets”—would rightly be seen to be alarming in other contexts. But in China, where Jews are widely perceived as clever and accomplished, they are meant as compliments. Scan the shelves in any bookstore in China 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’ Notebooksto Learn To Make Money With the Jews.

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. While it is true that the Chinese I’ve met are fascinated by—rather than fear—the Jews, these assertions make me deeply uncomfortable.

“Deeply uncomfortable.” The author, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, is proud that the Chinese understand that Jews are powerful and influential in the U.S. But she sees the situation from the standpoint of an American Jew for whom ideas that Jews have power or control are anathema because such ideas touch on major themes of historical anti-Semitism, such as media control.

Just before my visit to 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 explainedthat he would be an ideal newspaper magnate because “I am very good at working with Jews”—who, he said, controlled the media.
The author interviews the head of the Institute of Jewish Studies, founded by a Chinese professor to provide “a more nuanced view” of Jews. However, it’s rather clear that the institute fails a basic test of scholarly independence:
The institute is funded largely by foreign Jewish donors, who have their own interest in seeing portrayals of Judaism propagated in a more balanced way. “Hatred and intolerance are bred in ignorance,” the executive director of the China Judaic Studies Association, Beverly Friend, a patron of the institute, wrote to me in an email. “The institute provides knowledge.”
“Balanced”?  Reminds me of the pro-Israel donors having veto power over which professors are hired at the University of Illinois. Having academic departments with divergent, balanced views on Israel is definitely not high on the agenda of Jewish activist donors.
Given the economic realities, it’s not surprising that a Chinese doctoral student interviewed for the article, Liu Nanyang, has views that the ADL would definitely approve. It’s all about Nobel prizes and about Jewish tolerance for divergent opinions. Comparing Chinese to Jewish culture, he notes that “Chinese culture is not so tolerant.” (Israel, as we all know, is famously tolerant.)

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.”

The doctoral student needs to read more Jewish history. Divergent opinions were completely within a very narrow range, and dissenters were expelled: “There was little history of free speech within traditional Jewish societies.

Mr. Liu, however, understands how the world works well enough to keep the money flowing to the Institute of Jewish Studies:

As the afternoon drew to a close, I mentioned Chen Guangbiao, the billionaire who declared he is good at working with Jews. Liu was exasperated by such reductions.

“In their minds, Jewish people control the banks in America. It means for them that Jewish people control the world, controls the governments,” he railed, shaking his hands in disbelief. “I feel it’s a joke.”

Prof. Xu was more understanding. “Stereotypes are overemphasized. But in China this is positive,” he said calmly. After all, he added: “Had the Jews achieved nothing, no Chinese would be interested in them.”

By taking an extreme, vastly oversimplified rendition of Jewish influence, Mr. Liu (and Ms. Sebag-Montefiore) effectively preclude an honest, empirically based discussion of Jewish power and influence.
So the proper attitude is to revere Jews for their accomplishments in being awarded Nobel prizes and their “tolerance” but eschew any discussion of Jewish power in other areas and how that might conflict with the interests of others — the theme of Jews as a hostile elite. Ms. Sebag-Montefiore is very proud of Jewish intelligence and accomplishment, but she is also “deeply uncomfortable” that non-Jews, whether Chinese or American, might think that that’s not really a good thing for others. Honest discussions of Jewish power and influence — whether its the Israel Lobby, Hollywood and the media, Wall Street, or immigration and multiculturalism — are to be made off limits, not only in the U.S., where there is an elaborate, lavishly funded infrastructure to ensure it, but also in China where Jewish money is already having a major effect on the boundaries of legitimate discussion.
Being admired as influential and powerful is great, but Ms. Sebag-Montefiore and the organized Jewish community generally certainly wouldn’t want serious discussions about how that power and influence might compromise the legitimate interests of others.
China as a rising power would do well to view Jews through the lens of realism and empirically based discussion. As elsewhere, however, there are already forces that are pushing in the opposite direction.
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