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Jewish Community Studies

Report to the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Science

Daniel J. Elazar

The meeting was arranged by the US Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer as the centerpiece of their programming for me in China. The CAO had come to understand that Jewish topics were of interest to the Institute so, even though it was not listed on my formal list of topics, he suggested it to them and they grabbed it. My invitation to China grew out of their request.

The meeting itself was quite closed and included only a selected group from the Institute --those involved in the Christian Studies Program, of which Judaism is a part. While it is impossible to know exactly, I have the impression that only members of the Program were invited. Indeed, that explains my strange meeting with Professor Zhao on Tuesday. Zhao, who is a Vice President of the Academy and the senior person in Christian Studies, indicated both to the USIA people and myself that he was not planning to be at the presentation, without offering any excuse or apology. I wondered about that, but the way that the meeting was handled may have explained it.

The meeting was presided over by Professor Gao Wangzhi, the director of Christian Studies. He was clearly the senior man present, and with the possible exception of the man responsible for studies of the Orthodox Church, had no competition in the room. The others were all subordinates -- younger people within the institute, his of research assisstants, librarians, etc. There were also three people from the Academy's Foreign Affairs Department present, a man who left before the end, a young woman who took copious notes, and the interpreter, who struggled valiantly to interpret ideas and concepts foreign to her. There were eight or nine Chinese present from the Institute. Professor Gao dominated the proceedings, though not unpleasantly. He introduced me without giving any of my credentials, even less than were given on Monday by Professor Li at the Academy's Institute of American Studies. He did not mention my institutional affiliations or anything, merely turned the floor over to me after a few general comments about how pleased they were to have me with them.

I spoke through the interpreter in consecutive interpretation. The interpreter, who struggled with my words, knew English moderately well, but not really well enough to interpret since there were many relatively common words that she did not understand. Her efforts were supplemented by Professor Gao and by Bena Camp, the ACAO present, who was of great help, both in checking the accuracy of the translation and in filling in missing words. The major problem was simply conceptual. Concepts like "voluntary", "republican", and "federal" are simply not found in the Chinese lexicon. In fact, one of the strongest impressions I came away with was the degree to which the lack of any tradition of what we would call in the West democratic republicanism is crucial to even conveying our political ideas to the Chinese. They simply have no framework within which to place them and at best can think of them as utter abstractions. Needless to say, I had to simplify my talk a great deal in order to convey even the few basic points that I wished to convey.

At least two people in addition to Gao Wanghzi did listen intently -- a young lady researcher and one of the librarians, also a lady, who was responsible for dealing with the terms related to Judaism in the dictionary of religions they are publishing. The young lady researcher was really from the editorial department responsible for the publication of their journal. These two women seemed very interested in Judaism as a subject.

The researcher responsible for Orthodox Christianity may have been a bit hostile. There was a young archeologist who was interested in a vague way, perhaps because he was hard put to formulate questions (at one point he asked me "What about American Jewish youth?"). The others asked questions with varying degrees of interest or understanding. I would say that all were, at least, moderately interested in the topic. Apparently, the only other speaker on Judaism that they have had was Rabbi Joshua Stampfer of Portland, Oregon who gave one talk several years ago after he was found by happenstance by Gao while on a private visit to China.

The questions they asked were good, if quite general. Obviously, they were in no position to go into much detail on a subject so foreign to them, although the lady from the editorial staff had read items on Jewish life in the United States in Time and was able to ask me about the "National Jewish Committee" (apparently, the American Jewish Committee) and the Jewish lobby in a sufficiently focused way for me to give detailed answers. The student of the Orthodox Church started by asking me a pointed question as to how many Jews there were in the world and in the United States. Most of the other questions were less direct -- the vaguest being from the young archeologist who asked about Jewish youth in the United States and is there any place where ancient Jewish remains are found?

I emphasized that the Jews are a world civilization as ancient as the Chinese; a small, but influential people whose influence comes from being located at the center of every important communications network in the world beginning with Eretz Israel at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. I emphasized the relationship between Israel and the diaspora and how Jews were different from the Chinese because of the dominant role played by the diaspora for so long, how Jewish existence in the diaspora necessitated portable organization (a concept they could not understand easily) with a provision for expressing all three dimensions wherever Jews found themselves. I then broke down the dimensions of Jewish existence into the Torah-as-constitution, halakhah as the law, organization and institutions, explaining that the Torah and its accretions represented the constitution. I did not elaborate on the accretions. (The librarian in a comment revealing the problem of translation of terms, indicated that she tried to find a translation for the term Talmud in English or Russian and could not find either. In both cases, the word Talmud was used and she wanted to know why).

With regard to law, I emphasized the idea of halakha as way and the existence of a Jewish way of life. In connection with organization, I emphasized that the Jewish community was republican and egalitarian. They may have understood egalitarian but they had a hard time with republican. Bea had to fish around for the proper Chinese word. I indicated my surprise, considering that China is called the People's Republic of China in English, but apparently the Chinese word for republic is not exactly "republic," but rather something like a public group (collective?).

With regard to institutions, I talked mostly about Knesset-Israel and bet knesset as a congregation, which I was able to convey to them since it was a term they seemed to understand.

I went on to discuss how modernization has transformed the Jews, again trying to suggest a parallel with China; how the major feature of modernization was the adandonment of Jewish autonomy and the acquisition of citizenship in their countries of residence by individual Jews, on the one hand, and the restoration of Jewish statehood on the other hand. I was going to talk to them about civil religion and state-diaspora relations in more detail but saw no way to communicate anything about those two concepts so I went instead to the organizational principles today, namely how the Torah has been reinterpreted as constitution, how most Jews no longer live strictly according to the halakha but have found modifications, that organization is federal and voluntary with Israel at the center of concern, and that institutions vary from country to country. I then described the institutions of US Jewry by describing each of their five spheres: religious-congregational, educational-cultural, communal-welfare, community relations, and Israel-overseas.

I made many references to Israel, trying to emphasize all the time how important Israel is in the Jewish scheme of things. No one asked me a question about Israel nor did they refer to Israel directly. The closest that anyone came was Gao Wangzhzi who mentioned the United States and "other countries" with "other countries" clearly referring to Israel. He also congratulated us on the revival of the Hebrew language, which drew murmurs of approval. It was extremely obvious that they were avoiding mention of Israel but were aware of it.

One questioner suggested that Jews in the United States were very powerful (I believe it was the editorial person). I suggested that this was the case and that they used their power to work with other Americans to improve the quality of American life, to support Israel, and to work for other Jewish concerns such as Soviet Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry. They listened, but gave no further response. I talked about the Soviet Jewry struggle and the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and how American Jewry helped. I talked about American Jewish fundraising for local, overseas, and Israel purposes.

I talked a great deal about Jewish education. Indeed, there were many questions about Hebrew as a language, Yiddish and Yiddish literature. Gao asked about Yiddish and its rich literature (his words), obviously, to show off that he knew something about it. This enabled me to explain the whole question of Jewish languages and the importance of the revival of Hebrew, which they congratulated us on succeeding to revive. I also explained the importance of studying classical texts and how Jewish egalitarianism required that all Jews study the same basic texts and that any Jew who knew Hebrew could do so, which impressed them. They drew parallels with classical Chinese texts which can only be studied by scholars.

Another questioner, whom I also thought was a bit hostile, asked me to indicate what Judaism and Jews had contributed to the United States. My guess is that he was thinking in the back of his mind, "Why should Americans be so concerned about Israel and why should Jews be so powerful there when they are so few in number?" I responded by dividing the question into three parts; dealing with Judaism as an influence on American society; the role of the organized Jewish community, and the role of individual Jews. I began by emphasizing how Christianity emerged out of Judaism was a daughter religion and that those Christians who founded the United States were particularly close to their Jewish roots so that American society is much influenced by the Bible. I then discussed the Jewish contribution to the civil rights struggle and to the development of voluntary organizations in the United States, and then I talked about how individual Jews had made important contributions as Americans. Gao Wanghzi tried to reenforce that point by mentioning that Einstein was Jewish and Brandeis was Jewish and a few other names were thrown out by others -- Einstein seems to be a particularly well known name.

The man who studies the Orthodox Church then asked me a question about the Holocaust. Why did the Germans choose the Jews? There was a big discussion about the Holocaust with Gao Wanghzi mentioning the fact that there is no anti-Semitism in China. This got us on to the question of the Jews in China, particularly those of Kaifeng. Gao described his own research and how he had identified the 100 families that were still aware of their Jewish ancestry, but were no longer Jews, having assimilated into China because of the lack of anti-Semitism.

He did not see any of them coming back to Judaism, though he did see the possibility of erecting a museum to the Jewish community there. There was no possibility of reconstructing the synagogus since there is now a hospital on the site and, moreover, the original synagogue was grand and the Jews or descendants of Jews there could not afford to rebuild it. I asked him about the Jewish communities in China and he mentioned a number of other places where Jews had lived but said that there are no real records for studying the communities so he does not have data, he only knows of the fact that there were such communities. He also mentioned the Jewish refugees in Shanghai but did not mention any other city. When I mentioned Harbin and Tsiensin, he more or less nodded his head but did not know much about it.

He and Zhao are the two professors in China who write about Jewish matters. He gave me an article of his in Chinese about the origins of the Jewish people, published in the Institute's journal. The book on the Jews of China by Sidney Shapiro was published in New York and is barely available in China. He and Zhao have copies. The Foreign Press Service Bookstore does not even know about it. Sidney Shapiro apparently wrote the book because Jews kept looking him up and asking him questions about the Jews of China about which he knew no answers, so he followed up matters and wrote the book. Gao contributed an original chapter. There is one professor of Hebrew at the Protestant Seminary in Nanjing -- an older man who apparently was trained in the language outside of China.

The Holocaust seems to be a matter of some modest interest and something they know more about than anything else. Apparently, China television has acquired the Holocaust series or are about to and are preparing to show it, according to Gao Wanghzi. They also asked about intermarriage in the United States. Again, what they seem to know about is what they follow in Time and Newsweek. The two women in auxiliary positions, who read as part of their responsibilities, seem to know more than the men who are the researchers.

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