Back in 1988 when I lived in Israel and was thinking of going to China, I looked up an organization in Israel that had a name that sounded like it would have Chinese people in it. To my surprise, the organization was made up of Jews in Israel who had lived in Shanghai, China, during World War II. China had been the ONLY country that offered open sanctuary to the Jews escaping Hitler's rampages without any passport or visa requirements. America didn't; Britain didn't; nowhere but China did.
I just had the chance to view a documentary called "Shanghai Ghetto." It detailed what the lives of those Jews were like thrown into a very different culture and place. There was poverty, there was disease, there were harsh living conditions, but it turned out to be a paradise compared to life (mostly death) for those who stayed behind. And the Jews interviewed in the film gave due credit to the local Chinese who had so little themselves, but accepted them as fellow humans and neighbors. The Jews created newspapers and cultural events, Jewish and Chinese children played together, and vendors bought and sold to each other.
What was totally missing between Chinese and Jews, and still is, was anti-semitism. I personally know a Russian Jewish woman who was born and raised for eight years in Harbin, China, in the 1940s. She clearly remembers the kindness of the Chinese who shared what little they could and never made life harder for the Jews. They all shared those bad war years together. It was quite remarkable.
When asked where I was from the first time I was in Israel, I said I lived in Israel. I found it intriguing that every student studying English used the exact same adjective to describe Jews — "clever." As I continued to return to China over the next 24 years, I became very aware of Chinese respect and admiration for Jews. I got to know a Chinese professor named Xu Xin who had been a graduate student in the U.S. living with a Jewish family. That experience led him to a lifetime interest in translating Israeli authors into Chinese, being invited to visit Israel, researching and writing a beautiful book about the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, and finally establishing a Department of Judaica Studies at Nanjing University.
When I taught briefly at Nanjing University, I gave a lecture to the students comparing the cultures of Jews and Chinese. Both are enduring cultures that date back to almost the same time in history. Education, achievement and hard work have always been highly respected in both cultures. There are differences, but some very basic similarities.
The last years have shown a steady increase in relations between Israel and China. They share astute business minds and work together in joint ventures. Chabad, a Jewish organization, is in China, as are more and more Israelis who once again are finding a comfortable niche living in Chinese society. Ancient cultures, they both have long memories. Thankfully, the memories between China and Jews are ones of mutual admiration, appreciation and gratitude — with years ahead that promise more of the same.