TWENTY-four leading Chinese and Jewish scholars gathered in Beijing earlier this month to end 3,000 years of near-total cultural isolation. The first international colloquium on Chinese and Jewish culture was held in the Chinese capital under the joint auspices of the World Jewish Congress and the official China International Culture Exchange Center.
It was an event of undoubted historic significance. As one of the participants, Professor Zwi Werblowsky of the Hebrew University, put it: “For the very first time, Judaism has spoken for itself, about itself, in an unmediated dialog with Asian culture.”
Hitherto, Judaism had been perceived in China, as in the rest of Asia, through the distorting mirror of the Christian Mission and, Werblowsky concluded, “this notion of Judeo-Christian culture has been detrimental to a knowledge of Judaism in the East.”
Of particular concern was the hostility generated towards Israel throughout Asia, driven by the dictates of Third World politics. Governments of the region, it was perceived, had no chance of arriving at an independent assessment of policy based on any first-hand understanding either of the Jewish People or of the Jewish State.
China was absent from two important Jewish-Asian dialogs (Singapore, 1984, and Hong Kong, 1987), arranged by the WJC which subsequently, in close coordination with the Israel Foreign Ministry, focused its attention on that most important Asian country. The breakthrough came in October 1991, when we finally signed an agreement with the official China International Culture Exchange Center to hold the first-ever Chinese-Jewish Colloquium in Beijing, ending 3,000 years of near total lack of intercourse between two of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations.
There can be few precedents for the simultaneous appearance in a single international forum of Jewish scholars of the caliber of Professors Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University; Yoram Dinstein, president of Tel Aviv University; David Sidorsky of Columbia University; Anita Shapiro, dean of TAU; Zwi Werblowsky of the Hebrew University; and Saul Friedlander of TAU. They were joined by novelist Dr. Chaim Potok; former Israeli president Yitzahk Navon, an authority on Sephardi Judaism in his own right; and leading Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat.
The proceedings are to be published in both Chinese and English; all participants, Chinese and Jewish alike, agreed on the need to follow up with further contacts, in the form of academic exchanges and another colloquium, possibly in Israel in two years time.
Perhaps the most moving moment was in the final session, when the senior Chinese participant, Prof. Ji Xianlin of Beijing University, announced that the bonds of friendship between the Chinese and Jewish peoples, forged in Beijing in the course of three packed days of scholarly exchange, would “last forever.”
IMPORTANT AS this cultural breakthrough between two of the world’s oldest and richest civilizations undoubtedly was, no less important was the unmistakable political significance China attached to the colloquium.
There was a meeting with Premier Li Peng and Vice-Premier Wu Xuqian, covered widely by the local press and broadcast on both state radio and TV.
The choice of venue was ostensibly for security reasons, as our Chinese hosts had received warnings of a possible terrorist attack against the Jewish participants apparently as part of the international Hizbullah terror campaign following the assassination of Sheikh Mussawi in Lebanon. But while there is little reason to doubt that this was probably the main reason.
The fact that the colloquium took place in the Chinese government’s most prestigious official guest house – proclaimedly for security reasons – undoubtedly gave the event an added measure of political significance. Israel’s Ambassador Zev Sufott and Reuven Merhav, former Foreign Ministry director-general and consul-general at Hong Kong (who was actively involved in the planning and running of the colloquium) were both invited to a formal banquet for all participants.
Long before any of us could realistically have hoped, China thus has reversed its policy of the past four decades, extended full diplomatic recognition to Israel, and provided the new relationship with the cultural and intellectual ballast that would transcend politics and enable it to survive the vicissitudes of fickle international realpolitik.
Looking to the future, China is only a start. Much of the Asia-Pacific region, unlike Christian Europe and the Islamic East, are still very much Judenrein in a profound cultural sense. In the coming months, the WJC will be looking to India, the second most populous country in the region after China.
Perhaps even more importantly, it will turn its attention to Japan, the economic and, increasingly, the political giant of the region. Both Delhi and Tokyo are fertile areas for an intensive cultural and intellectual dialog along the lines of that just initiated with China.
The Jewish People and the Jewish State cannot afford to remain absent from the cultural and political consciousness of a region many believe will replace the US and Europe as the world’s economic and political powerhouse in the 21st Century.
The writer, who is co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress, lives in Melbourne, Australia.