Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Catching Up On Israel In Beijing: Israel Studies Seminar at Peking University

At 7 AM on July 7 I made aliyah. Fifteen hours later I was back at Ben Gurion airport, preparing to fly to Beijing via Amsterdam for a week long academic conference at China’s premier university on Israel Studies. In other words, I would spend my first week as an Israeli citizen learning from some of China’s top Israel scholars about my new country (see here for images from the seminar).

[Update: Chinese language transcripts of the remarks from the conference were published and are available online here.]

My involvement in the seminar dated from an international Jewish leadership conference {ROI} I attended in Jerusalem in July 2007. I was invited to attend on the strength of Nikayon Zion, the organization my brother and I had founded to inspire Jerusalem’s residents to take responsibility for their city. On the first day, I met another participant named Seth who had come to the conference with a proposal to advance the Jewish world’s relationship with China.

Seth was the first person I had ever met that shared my passion for this cause. Over the last two years we kept speaking about how to advance China-Jewish ties. And so when Seth succeeded in organizing an Israel Studies seminar at Peking University, he invited me to attend.

Exactly what I would do at the seminar was never quite clarified. One job that became my own was keeping notes on the presentations given by the four leading Israeli scholars whose remarks formed the core of the seminar. I also took photographs and otherwise assisted Seth as he kept everyone on the same page. Besides the Israeli professors, the seminar included over twenty Chinese scholars of Israel and Jewish history. It was fascinating to get to know the views and personalities of these pioneering professors. I also made sure to speak at length with the two dozen Chinese graduate and undergraduate students. These students represent the future of Israel and Jewish Studies in China, and I have no doubt we will meet again in the future.

The Chinese scholars lectured on every conceivable issue relevant to Israel. I found two scholars particularly fascinating for what they said as well as what their lectures say about China’s interest in Jews and Judaism. The first lecture was delivered by China’s leading Holocaust scholar, an influential lady who also serves as the vice-president of Zhengzhou University. She titled her presentation “Currency Wars and the House of Rothschild” and over the course of a two hour lecture proceeded to deconstruct the malicious myth that Jewish financiers control the world economy and caused the latest financial crisis. The material would all be laughable if it was not widely believed by many intelligent people in East Asia, like the senior Chinese officials who raised the culpability of Jewish moneymen in a 2008 meeting with a Rothschild banker. Vice President Zhang Qianhong of Zhengzhou University rightly fears such myths and has actively worked throughout China to demonstrate their falsehood.

The second lecture I found particularly illuminating was by Fu Youde, the most influential Chinese scholar of Jewish Studies. Professor Fu accomplished the rare feat of establishing a government recognized center of Jewish Studies at his home institution of Shandong University. Working with a pioneering scholar/activist named Avrum Erlich, Professor Fu has worked to make Shandong a flourishing center of Jewish knowledge, hosting annual seminars, publishing several volumes and educating a growing number of students and state officials on the merits of deepening China’s knowledge of the Jewish people. Professor Fu is one of many Chinese scholars who look to Confucianism to revamp contemporary Chinese society. In his lecture, entitled “Lessons from the Reforms in Judaism on Chinese Culture,” Professor Fu argued that Chinese traditional culture should learn from the reforms that have allowed Judaism to flourish in the modern age. It is a fascinating hypothesis, one that I once researched for a project analyzing how the ethical imperatives of Pirkei Avot and the Analects of Confucius have influenced their respective communities over history.

An additional highlight to the seminar came when the Israeli Ambassador hosted the Israeli scholars, Seth and myself for dinner at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

It was my first time entering the embassy and meeting the staff of an institution my friends have enjoyed proposing will be my future home. While I have my doubts that my professional goals will lead straight into the arms of the Israeli government, the dinner was another fascinating experience. The ambassador and his staff engaged in no holds barred debate with Seth and the Israeli professors, speculating on the threat of Iran and what is needed in China-Israel ties. The embassy staff were very friendly and supportive of my own plans and I intend to do my best to remain in touch with them on my return to Israel.

After a week of conversing with Israeli and Chinese scholars in Hebrew, Chinese, English and even a little Arabic, I prepared to wish China farewell. The trip had exposed me to a wide range of ideas and individuals active on China’s ties with the Jewish world. I also met a wonderful batch of Jewish expats, including an endlessly intriguing fellow named Sebastian Pablo who generously hosted me in his small Wudaokou apartment.

Most importantly, my week in China gave me a chance to viscerally appreciate what I will be taking a break from over the next two years. If not for the army, I would be preparing to settle in for the final year of my Masters degree at the Hopkins-Nanjing Institute in southeast China. I would be developing my knowledge of China’s language and society, while also engaging myself in furthering the development of China-Jewish ties. Instead my feet will be firmly planted in Israel. In combat boots. Running up hills. Dragging myself through the mud. Following through on a promise that now and forever will, I hope, remain basic to who I am.

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