When I present myself to a Chinese person, it always boosts my ego. "A Jew? Very smart!" is the immediate response. It is mostly followed by "you are very good at business."
There is no doubt, however, that my favorite response is "you're like Einstein!" There is indeed a certain similarity between Einstein and myself. And the proof is that only this week I managed to repair a leakage in my washer's pipe system all by myself.
From time immemorial, and in many parts of the world to this day, the Jews have suffered from anti-Semitism and discrimination. In China, there are also prejudices against the Jews and Israel, but surprisingly enough, most of them are positive.
Although the large majority of the Chinese have never met a Jew, the prevailing opinion in China praises and glorifies the Jews and the State of Israel. Other pearls of wisdom by the Chinese include: "Israel is small and surrounded by enemies, but manages to survive and succeed," and "China and Judaism are the only things that have maintained their character throughout history."
and China are close friends," the Chinese like to boast, showing impressive proficiency in the history of China's Jews. And indeed, the Jews owe a lot to China, which served as a haven of rest for Diaspora Jews throughout the pervious century.
Shanghai synagogue (Photo: AP)
Historic documentations estimate that the first Jews arrived in China in the eighth century from Persia, through the Silk Road. The first Jewish community in China was founded in the year 1163 in the city of Kai-Fang in the Nan district, where the first Chinese synagogue was built.
In the end of the 19th century, Russian Jews settled in the cities of Tianjin and Dalian in northern China. But the biggest community at the time, which was comprised of some 25,000 Jews at its peak, was established in the city of Harbin, where Jews arrived following the extension of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Teddy Kaufman, chairman of the Israel-China Society, was born in Harbin in 1924 and immigrated to Israel in 1950. His childhood in the city was quiet and normative. He had several Chinese friends who studied with him at school, and he took part in the active and routine community life.
"We knew nothing of what was taking place in Europe. We were completely disconnected from the Jewish world," he told me. When I asked if he had ever encountered acts of anti-Semitism, he said, "Of course, on the part of the Russians in the city." And on the part of the Chinese? "Never."
When I asked if he was grateful to the Chinese for their fair treatment of the Jews, he answered immediately, "Without a doubt."
In 1931, and following the Japanese takeover of the Manchuria district in northern China, the Jews' situation worsened. They were forced to live under supervision and restrictions on their businesses and comply with Japanese laws. In the coming years, some 4,500 Jews emigrated from northern China to Shanghai, before the Japanese took control of the city.
Photo from 'Jewish ghetto' days in Shanghai (Photo: Amir and Dana Man)
"The world seems to be divided into two: Places where Jews can’t live, and places which Jews can't enter," Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1936, after the Nazis rose to power in Europe and other countries banned Jews from entering them.
An exception was the city of Shanghai, which in the 1930s was the only place in the world which did not require an entry visa. In the 1930s and during World War II, some 18,000 Jews who fled Nazi Europe found refuge in the city.
They joined two waves of Jewish immigration which had already reached Shanghai. The first in 1848 of wealthy Jews from Baghdad, who had accumulated a lot of power and property in the city, and the second of Russian Jews in the 1930s.
Most of the Jewish immigrants arrived with no assets whatsoever, and were financially supported by the rich Baghdad Jews and donations raised by the Joint organization in the United States. The Jewish community developed an independent life in Shanghai, which included schools, hospitals, cemeteries, theatres and even sports teams.
In 1937, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese, and in 1942, following Nazi Germany's pressure on the Japanese authorities, the Japanese instructed all "the residents of Shanghai without a citizenship" (a political wording directed at the Jews) to move to a crowded area of more than 1 square-kilometer, in the poor quarter of Hongkou.
The quarter, which was known as "the Shanghai ghetto" was the land of the city's poor, and the Jews lived there together with the Chinese. The living conditions in the Ghetto was extremely difficult, there was a great food shortage, and outbreaks of diseases due to the harsh sanitation conditions. In Shangahi, however, as opposed to the rest of the world, nearly all the Jews survived the war.
Monument in memory of Shanghai ghetto residents, written in Hebrew, English and Chinese (Photo: Ronen Medzini)
The Chinese were also persecuted and massacred by the Japanese at the time. "The Chinese and Jews had a special brotherhood, a brotherhood of persecuted people," I was told by Shalom Greenberg, Shanghai's rabbi. "Today too, the Jews are thankful to the Chinese for treating them as equals, as human beings."
Upon the State of Israel's foundation, and following the rise of Communism in China, which did not benefit minorities and different religions, almost all Jews left the city. Most of them immigrated to Israel, the rest moved to other countries. Today, Dvir Ben-Gal guides tours in the trail of the Jewish community in Shanghai.
The Jewish community in Shanghai is comprised of some 2,000 Jews today, all newcomers. Next week, at least 500 people are expected to take part in the Passover night service which will be held by the Chabad House in the city and will be conducted by Rabbi Greenberg.
A common basic assumption in China and the world is that Jews have money and power. The difference is in the approach towards this assumption. While in many parts of the world the Jews' businesses and dominance are viewed with a feeling of disgust, the Chinese have developed great admiration, even idolization, for the Jewish mind.
What is the main reason for this? China doesn’t feel, and never felt, threatened by the Jews. On the contrary, China views Judaism as an ancient and wise culture like its own, and respects the high moral and family values emphasized in the Bible.
Thus, the global suspicion/hatred/jealousy towards Jews' money and dominance has been replaced in China by another phenomenon: Curiosity. The question "why are the Jews so dominant in the world?" is asked by many Chinese.
I found proof in the local bookstore. In the business section, I caught sight of one book with an interesting title: "The Jewish road to wealth." When I asked the saleswoman if there were similar books, she referred me to an entire section of business books using the Jewish motif to attract readers.
Entire section of books for Jews' businesses (Photo: Ronen Medzini)
Another book, which I immediately caught sight of, includes an illustration of Moses grasping the Tables of the Covenant and carries the title, "The ancient and great Jewish writings for getting rich."
When I asked the saleswoman which of these books was a best seller, she handed me the book "The Jews' business wisdom and the art of proper behavior according to the Talmud." I do not recall learning how to become rich in school, but this is definitely an original way to make the lessons more interesting.
Other books I found on the shelves included: "The most effective methods for Jewish businesses," "Interpreting the Jewish merchants – how they sell and succeed" and "The Jews – why are they rich?"
It is very likely that books with similar titles published in any other country would be considered anti-Semitic and racist. In China, however, they can be viewed as a sort of distorted compliment to our heritage. After all, when I told the saleswoman I was a Jew, she immediately uttered, "Wow, you're smart!"
My heartfelt thanks to Teddy Kaufman, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, Dvir Bar-Gal and Etti Frish