JERUSALEM – The Chinese are connoisseurs of civilization. For thousands of years they have absorbed ethnicities into their own culture, eliminating on occasion tribes that proved too troublesome. They have watched other civilizations come and go; they have seen their younger neighbors adopt parts of their culture and then try to assert their superiority, and ultimately fail. They are the last people on earth to accept the liberal Western dogma that every culture is valid within its own terms of reference, for they have seen too many civilizations fail of their own flaws.
There is no greater compliment to any culture than to be admired by Chinese, who with some justification regard their civilization as the world’s most ancient and, in the long run, most successful. The high regard that the Chinese have for Jews should be a source of pride to the latter. In fact, it is very pleasant indeed for a Jew to spend time in China. The sad history of Jew-hatred has left scars on every European nation, but it is entirely absent in the world’s largest country. On the contrary, to the extent that Chinese people know something of the Jews, their response to us is instinctively sympathetic.
“I am always surprised by the expressions of affection that the Chinese show for the Jews. Both cultures, the Chinese emphasize, share respect for family, learning and, yes, money,” wrote the journalist Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore last year. ‘”Most Chinese will think Jews are smart, clever or good at making money, and that they have achieved a great deal,’ Professor Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University (one of over half a dozen centers in China dedicated to studying Judaism) told me last week,” she wrote. “This logic – that the Jews are admired for their success despite their small numbers and historical oppression – has also led to a burgeoning industry of self-help books that use Jewish culture and the Talmud to preach business tips.”
Family, learning, respect for tradition, business acumen: these are Jewish traits that the Chinese also consider to be their virtues. All this is true as far as it goes. One might also mention that China never has had reason to view the Jews as competitors for legitimacy.
Christianity began as a Jewish sect and has vacillated between the claim that is has superseded Judaism and the view that it is a daughter religion that should honor its parent. Islam claims that Jews and Christians falsified the revelations given to them and that their scriptures are a perversion of God’s true message, which Mohammed restored to its original integrity. But by no stretch of the imagination could China view the Jews as a threat to the legitimacy of its civilization.
The Chinese, in short have no reasons to dislike or fear the Jews, and a number of reasons to admire them simply because Jews display traits that Chinese admire among themselves. A Jew visiting China, though, senses an affinity with Chinese people, more than can be explained by the commonality of traits. There is a common attitude towards life, and especially toward adversity.
A Chinese friend explained it to me this way: If you suffer a setback, even if through no fault of your own, and even if through the malicious acts of malevolent people, you must not feel sorry for yourself or blame others for your troubles. It is you who must take responsibility for overcoming them. You are required to redouble your efforts and work all the harder. Perseverance in the face of adversity is something Jews understand very well. Through two millennia of exile in the West, Jews maintained an autonomous high culture while succeeding at the highest level within Western culture, often despite persecution.
Civilizations fail when they become despondent, when they lose confidence in their history and their future, when their citizens cease to feel pride in and draw inspiration from their culture. Somehow, for thousands of years, Jews and Chinese kept their confidence in their civilization and preserved it through war and foreign conquest. Surely that helps explain their present success. The confidence to redouble one’s efforts in the face of adversity, even malevolence, cannot be explained by simple stubbornness. The grit required to excel even when the game is rigged against you is not only a cultural trait, but the trait of a culture, that is, a personal characteristic that draws on a culture’s self-confidence.
It may seem odd to compare the largest of peoples with one of the world’s smallest, but Chinese and Jews have something in common that helps explain their success and longevity. That is the ability to rise above ethnic conflicts.
Tribal warfare is the bane of human society. During the 40,000 years before the dawn of civilization, some anthropologists estimate, two-fifths of males who survived infancy died in warfare. The great empires of the Near East and the West failed because they enslaved the peoples they conquered rather than integrate them. European Christianity offered a compromise: the ethnicities that occupied Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire would join a universal Church in the spirit, but keep their ethnic nature in the flesh. Ultimately the flesh overwhelmed the spirit, and ethnocentric nationalism provoked the terrible wars of the 20th century.
Chinese civilization offered a different model: it integrated innumerable ethnic minorities into a unified culture centered on a written language and literary tradition, and offered the opportunity for advancement to everyone who came under the umbrella of this culture. Unlike Rome, it did not enslave subject populations to work giant estates, but emphasized the extended family as the fundamental unit of society.
Unlike Christianity, where the unifying language of Europe (Latin) was understood by a tiny elite, Chinese culture propagated a unifying written language. Literacy in ancient China was extremely high in comparison to the ancient and medieval West, between 20% and 30% by most estimates. China still has 55 ethnic minorities and a wide variety of spoken languages. The only people with a higher literacy rate in the ancient world were the Jews, who began a program of compulsory universal education during the 1st century BCE.
What distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the ancient world west of the Indus River? Uniquely, the ancient Hebrews believed that their nation was defined not by ethnicity and geographic origin but rather by a code of practice given by divine mandate.
Jewish Scripture describes the founding father of the Jewish people, Abraham, as a wandering Babylonian summoned by the single Creator God to leave his homeland and come to a land-the present-day Israel-where his descendants would multiply and endure forever. The generation of his great-grandchildren migrated to Egypt, and their descendants were enslaved. God’s intervention freed the Hebrews from slavery, and gave them the Torah (“teachings”) at Mount Sinai, instructing them to conquer the future Land of Israel.
The Jews are not an ethnicity but a people defined by a partnership with the Creator God, in which they are obligated to recognize God’s presence in the details of their daily lives, and empowered to help in the work of creation. Individuals of all races can be adopted into this nation by accepting its responsibilities; in today’s State of Israel one sees hundreds of thousands of black African Jews from Ethiopia, as well as Jews of all ethnicities.
The Jews are not an ethnic nation but a multi-racial family. The Jews were the first people to apply the same laws to the foreigner as to the home-born. Indeed, they are commanded to love the stranger in the same way that the love themselves, because they were strangers in Egypt. It is a particular nation-indeed, a “nation apart”-that nonetheless has a universal purpose for all of humanity. The Jews are “the paragon and exemplar of a nation,” the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote a century ago.
The proof that Jewish nationhood has a universal mission is the founding of the United States of America-the most successful nation in history-by radical Protestants who sought to walk in the footsteps of ancient Israel and drew inspiration from the Jewish Bible and later Jewish commentators.
What the Jews have in common with the Chinese, therefore, is a sense of loyalty to an ancient tradition that defines the obligations of each member of society and puts the family at the center of social life, as opposed to a mere tribal and ethnic loyalties. These are parallel ways of rising above tribalism.
There is an enormous distinction, to be sure: the Jews believe that they were summoned into national existence by the one God, the Maker of Heaven, for whom the universe is like a suit of clothes which he will replace when it wears out (Psalm 92). For that reason they are obligated to bring the presence of God into everyday life, through laws of diet and family purity, prayer, and Sabbath observance.
The religious life of ancient Israel was centered in the Temple at Jerusalem. It was an institution revered in the ancient world. As Dore Gold writes:
The Temple service reflected the universalistic role envisioned for Jerusalem. In dedicating the Temple, King Solomon said that prayers would be offered there by “a foreigner who is not of your people Israel, but rather comes from a distant land.” In Isaiah, God described the Temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples” … sacrifices were regularly offered to promote peace for the entire world. … According to biblical law, non-Jews were in fact permitted to offer sacrifices at the Temple, a practice that became particularly widespread during the Second Temple period (512 BCE to 70 CE ). … It was also common for non-Jewish leaders to send gifts to the Temple throughout the Second Temple period. Darius, King of Persia, and even Augustus Caesar both did this. Undoubtedly because of the Temple, [the Roman historian] Pliny the Elder wrote that Jerusalem was the most famous city in the East.
Christianity resituated the holiness and authority of the Temple in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As Pope Benedict XVI explained, Jesus claimed for himself the qualities of the Temple (Matthew 12:5). After the Romans destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Christian variant of the Jewish idea gained support, and ultimately was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
But it was the standing of Judaism and its universal appeal in the ancient world that made Christianity possible in the first place. That explains why it is more difficult for Christianity to take hold in China today than in the ancient Mediterranean; without the living memory of the Temple at Jerusalem and the unique role of ancient Israel, Christianity becomes an abstraction rather than an extension of Israel’s living presence.
By replacing the Temple with the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity spiritualized Jewish practice. In place of the sacrifices of the Temple, belief in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection became the center of Western religion. Christianity appealed to the tribes of Europe by offering them a place in a “new Israel” of the spirit, while retaining their ethnic identity in the flesh. The tragedy of Western Christianity is that the flesh overcame the spirit, and the tribalism of the European peoples ultimately destroyed the universal ties of Christian culture.
It is instructive to contrast today’s Europe with today’s China. Europe has achieved a limited degree of unification without, however, overcoming national resistance to a unified government. China by contrast contains fifty-five distinct ethnic minorities and numerous spoken languages within a single political system. Despite the occasional eruption of separatist tendencies, China is in little danger of reverting to a loose confederation of ethnicities.
For all its great accomplishments, the European project of the past thousand years has failed. The greatest achievement of the West is the creation of the United States of America, which selected immigrants from all nations in a new, non-ethnic polity defined by a Constitution inspired to a great extent by ancient Israel.
When Christianity failed to overcome the residual tribalism of the West, its universalizing message was replaced by relativism. The reigning dogma in the secular West now states that every ethnicity is entitled to its own “narrative” and that all cultures are equally valid in their own terms. Relativism refuses to consider the obvious fact that some cultures succeed while others fail miserably; it insists on the absolute right of self-definition and self-termination for every tribe.
This post-Christian ideology motivates many attacks on China in the West, and justifies Western support for breakaway movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other Chinese provinces. The same ideology justifies attacks on the State of Israel. Liberal relativists argue that Palestinian Arabs have the right to their own self-defining narrative, which regards the State of Israel as an alien intrusion in the Middle East-despite the thousands of years of Jewish history and the unbroken Jewish presence in the country over those thousands of years. The relativists demand that Israel abandon its character as a Jewish State, or at least give up so much land as to become indefensible.
The State of Israel was founded in one of the many population exchanges that occurred after World War II: about 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries, including the ancient community of Iraq that predated the Arabs, and about 700,000 Arab refugees left the State of Israel. Israel integrated the expelled Jews but the Arab countries refused to integrate the expelled Arabs, maintaining them instead as a permanent “refugee” population in token of their refusal to accept the historical rights of the Jewish people.
The Arab countries began three wars of aggression against Israel-in 1947, 1967, and 1973-but failed each time. In 1967, Israel retook the eastern half of its capital Jerusalem, the site of the ancient Temple. Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since the middle of the 19th century, and a continuous Jewish presence – with brief interruptions after expulsions by Roman and Christian conquerors – for more than 3,000 years.
The same perverse logic that denies Israel the right to live in its ancient homeland in secure borders with its ancient capital city is used to condemn China’s sovereignty over Xinjiang and Tibet, among other places. The supposed right of self-determination for “Uyghur culture” or “Tibetan culture” is opposed to China’s historic sovereignty over those territories. If this argument were extended to its logical conclusion, the great accomplishment of Chinese civilization – its genius for integrating many ethnicities into a unifying culture – is a wicked form of imperial impression.
This begs the question: why are Western liberals so obsessed with the putative right of the Palestinian Arabs to their own “narrative”? The answer, I believe, is that the Palestinian issue is the thin end of the wedge. In the West, Israel represents the ideal of a civilization that rises above ethnicity. The historic continuity of the Jewish people is the foundation for Christianity, which has faded as a universalizing civilization in Europe.
If Israel’s historic rights to its ancient homeland are compromised, and if Israel can be portrayed as an imperial aggressor that violates the self-definition of ethnic minorities, relativism will triumph over the principle of unifying civilization. Israel has enormous symbolic importance for the West.
Founded just 65 years ago, the modern Jewish state has become a pocket superpower in technology, business and the arts, as well as the strongest and most stable state in the Middle East. It is also the only industrial country with a fertility rate far above replacement. Not just in the abstract, but in its concrete manifestation in the modern State of Israel, Jewish nationhood remains “a paragon and exemplar of a nation.”
The ambitions of liberal relativism extend far beyond the Middle East. It is much easier to drive the thin end of the wedge into Israel, a nation of just 8 million people, than into China, a world power of 1.4 billion people. Precisely the same reasoning that proposes to carve up the State of Israel justifies ethnic separatism in China.
It is important to emphasize that this has nothing to do with the question of democracy in China. The Western liberals who support Tibetan separatism, for example, do not argue that Tibetans should have the right to vote in Chinese elections: they argue that Tibetans should have the right to restore the extremely undemocratic feudal system that prevailed before Tibet was integrated into China.
The instinctive affinity that Chinese feel for the Jewish people, therefore, is not a matter of happenstance. Nor is the fact that Chinese civilization and Jewish civilization have longer continuity than any other modes of human existence. Despite their great differences, they share a common purpose, to transcend tribalism through a unifying civilization. It should be no surprise that they have enemies in common.