Israeli and Chinese Academics Meet

An old Chinese proverb says, “Every step leaves its print.”  One recent small step forward has been taken by SIGNAL, a non-governmental, independent non-profit Israeli organization.  This advance, aimed at increasing academic relations between Israel and China, may at this stage be relatively small, and not a giant leap for mankind, but it is the first step in the thousand-mile journey that will leave its prints on academic and student exchanges between the two countries.  It is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

The world is all too familiar with the raucous voices of the biased and bigoted groups, international bodies, and individuals calling for an academic boycott (BDS) of Israel.  It is much less aware of the contrasting fact that Chinese academics are eager to collaborate with Israeli institutions and groups, and are working now with this new organization SIGNAL (the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership).  Groups such as the ill-informed American Studies Association, Oxfam International, and Amnesty International that did call for boycotts of various kinds should take notice.

Israeli universities have for some time had programs in Chinese studies: the Hebrew University offered its first Chinese class in 1958, more than thirty years before diplomatic relations were established between the two nations.  Most Israeli universities now offer instruction in Chinese studies.  Since 2007, Tel Aviv University has hosted a Confucius Institute that offers instruction in Chinese language and culture.

The Jewish presence in China goes back nearly a thousand years, but only relatively recently has there been education in Jewish studies, instituted in Shanghai in 1988 and in Nanjing University in 1992.  Presently there are nine centers in China devoted to Jewish or Talmudic studies, though only one, the Center in Shanghai, is concerned with studies on the State of Israel.

Now the start has been made for Israel studies, as well as Jewish studies, to be taught in China.  The first Israel Studies Program (ISP) in China was launched in October 2011 by SIGNAL at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing.  This city also hosted the first Israel Business Forum.  Since then, within the last two years, six other studies programs for undergraduates and graduates have been established at a number of other Chinese institutions, including those in Shanghai’s International Studies University and Beijing.  Each of the programs is appropriate to the specific university.

The most recent  research center for Israeli Studies was established in September 2013 by Tel Aviv University at the School of International and Public Affairs at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.  This is an appropriate gesture to remember righteous behavior.  For 18,000 Jews, escaping Nazi Germany during World War II, Shanghai was a safe haven even when the city was under Japanese occupation.  Today it is the residence of most of the 2,500 Jews living in China.

The stated aim of SIGNAL, as made clear in a paper on the subject by Avigayil Kadesh, is to enhance the Chinese-Israeli strategic, diplomatic, cultural, and economic relationship through long-term academic interactions.  It is hoped that these academic relations will help foster mutually beneficial relations between the two countries.  The program is based on the belief that China is eager to learn from Israel’s entrepreneurial and innovative high-tech programs and its cultural achievements.  It therefore brings Chinese students and faculty to Israel for a semester-long training period in how to teach Israel studies, as well as providing for Israeli academics to teach in China.

In addition to the classroom experience, students are exposed to learning about Israeli culture, society, and land through day trips and in university seminars, conferences, and workshops, and also learn about Jewish history and the Holocaust.  SIGNAL has already hosted and participated in a number of academic conferences both in China and Israel.  An early conference at Herzliya in September 2011 was attended by a large delegation of senior Chinese scholars, said to be the largest group of senior-level Chinese scholars ever to attend a conference outside China.

Some steps towards a closer relationship between Israel and China have of course already been taken.  Normal diplomatic relations between the two countries started in January 1992, though military cooperation had begun some years earlier in 1975 with clandestine military exchanges between the Israeli Defense Forces and the People’s Liberation Army.  Israel recognized the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government.  Political relations were enhanced with the visits to China of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2013, and of Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister to Israel, in December 2013 to discuss trade agreements.   

Economic ties have grown annually. In 2010, bilateral trade amounted to $6.7 billion.  In 2012, the bilateral trade had increased to more than $8 billion.  Israel has been selling electronic equipment, communication satellites, precious stones, fertilizers, agro technology, water purification systems, and optical instruments to China.  Joint working groups have been set up on a number of issues, including high tech, agriculture, water, and energy.  A new departure has been Chinese investing in Israel’s high-tech ventures.  The most prominent foreign investor in this field is Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong billionaire, who in addition to his investments is financing the engineering campus being developed at Shantou University by Israel’s Technion Institute.

SIGNAL, through the ISPs, has enhanced the process of academic relationship between the countries, and one that is based on practical, not merely theoretical concerns.  This can be seen in a number of ways.  First is the intention to provide Chinese academics, especially elite scholars, with a greater understanding of Israel and its people as well as to provide pragmatic information.  The reality is that there has been until very recently a shortage of Chinese books or source material on Israel.  The role of SIGNAL is to increase the amount of accurate information about the Middle East region, in which China is preparing to play an increasingly active role.  

An important aspect of SIGNAL’s objectives is the anticipation that information on Israel imparted to Chinese scholars may be passed on to decision-makers whom they might advise.  This expectation is particularly high in the collaboration of SIGNAL relationship with the Chinese Center for Contemporary World Studies (CCCWS) in Beijing, which is a model of the way in which Chinese academics are linked with government and party.  CCWS is the research center for China’s National Security Office and apparently has substantial influence on decision-making in foreign affairs.  Israeli academics participated in the Multilateral Dialogue conference at CCCWS in November 2012 together with scholars from more than 30 countries.

SIGNAL has hosted Chinese delegations in Israel and established joint research projects.  Even more fundamental is the mutual discussion of Middle Eastern affairs and Israel’s perspective on them.  For China, there is practical interest and concern about issues such as nuclear programs, especially that of Iran; supplies of oil, particularly important because of China’s growing economy; and above all technological innovations.

China is also aware of and hopes to learn from Israel’s relationships with and policies in integrating Muslims, now 20 percent of the Israeli population.  The fourth SIGNAL program of Israel studies was started in departments of Shihezi University in Shihezi City, Xinjiang, an area near the former Soviet Union republics, because it contains China’s second-largest Muslim minority population.

Besides the ISPs, SIGNAL has established a center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.  This Center for Contemporary Sino Israel Studies is the world’s first Chinese-Israeli center focusing on comparative politics and strategic analysis.  The dean of the school is a prominent Chinese political scientist.  The Center is concerned with both policy-oriented research and interdisciplinary projects.  A yearlong program is to be held in Israel in Arabic studies for Chinese students who number about 150.  In preparation is a Virtual Resource Center, a website in Chinese with information, both introductory and scholarly, on Israel.  In the International Business Economics School of Beijing University there is already a department on Israeli economics as well as on Judaism.

Another Chinese proverb is pertinent.  A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.  The songs sung in the steps by SIGNAL and other Israeli organizations do not constitute a panacea for peace and stability in the Middle East, but they are a contribution to useful dialog and negotiations.  In the interests of that peace, it is important to keep the momentum going.  It is even more important for those biased bigots calling for boycott of Israel individuals, groups, and international bodies to realize they are on the wrong side of history.  Academic relations are more helpful to a positive search for peace than the negative hostility to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.