The Mu Shoo Jews: Jews in Beijing

Maybe the Sassoons had it right all along. A Jewish family of Iraqi descent, they prospered for four generations in China, variously dominating shipping, opium trading and real estate development from their base in Shanghai. Even today, beyond Israel and the coastal United States, Zhong-guo might be the next best place to be a Jew.

“Every time I mention that I am Jewish to a Chinese person, the reaction is virtually the same: ‘Oh, Jewish people are very smart…very, very smart!’” explains one Beijing-based American Jew (who asked to remain anonymous prior to the launch of his new online media business). “It’s almost as if we are these mythical creatures with special powers.”

My experience has been similar. I’m in Beijing on a Princeton-in-Asia Fellowship to teach, study and write, and though Christmas has already come and gone, the detritus of good cheer, jingles, pine trees and Chinese Santa Clauses remains on every corner, supermarket, restaurant and lobby. As a result, I frequently find myself telling people that I’m Jewish, in order to explain why on December 25th, I conventionally ate Chinese food, and watched a movie—rather than unwrapping St. Nick-delivered booty. I’m regularly told we Jews (youtairen) are among the cleverest in the world, along with Indians and Chinese. It seems broadly recognized that, after Buddha himself, Jewish people most closely approximate “enlightened” status.

However, in capital-crazed Communist China, I wonder: is this because we’re stereotypically good with money?

Marx, Freud and Einstein are three of the most respected thinkers here in China; the first is required reading within the Chinese Communist canon. It is not lost on nationals that all were Tribesmen. Although China’s national policy is increasingly oriented toward “opening up” and free-market values, that the social fabric is informed by book titles inspired by some imagined Jewish business acumen and not Das Kapital only perpetuates an appreciation of what is perceived as a largely money-oriented Judaic world view. Best-sellers include The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish, Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives, and Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom. For a nation obsessed with financial success, it makes sense that Shawn Medelovich, an Israeli-American in the import/export business, found that “upon learning I’m Jewish, [the Chinese] immediately compliment me on my financial skills.”

While this exists as a negative characterization in some cultures, it is a highly-valued ideology here, one which has evolved since Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s “Opening Up” in the late 1970s into a key driver of policies in contemporary China. My eager and newly-independent freshman university students initially defined Chinese national “values” as success, fame and riches—before a few loyal Party adherents corrected everyone that Communist China is more concerned with ensuring that everyone has food, a warm coat and a job in which to work for the greatness of the State.

In a country whose government excludes Judaism from its five “recognized religions,” and whose recent history survived the organized suppression of any religious expression, it’s astounding that the Jewish religion is recognized at all. Perhaps the perception involves some knowledge of Silk Road traders, some of whom settled and constructed a synagogue in Kaifeng in the 1100s. Or an awareness of the Sephardi merchants, like the Sassoons, who joined Westerners at the start of colonialism. There were Jewish refugees fleeing the World Wars and Nazi hatred, who might have inspired sympathies in their escape from the Japanese-supported Axis powers; and through the latter half of the twentieth century, a proportion of expatriates happened to be Jewish. And yet, not one of the aforementioned historical appearances of Jews in China in and of themselves inspire caricaturing of Jews as rich rulers.

Amongst my Chinese colleagues, I’ve been reminded that the founders of Lehman Bros. and Goldman-Sachs are Jewish. Some of the perceptions border on “take over the world” conspiracy-theories, especially within the finance sector, and end up incorrectly attributing successes and wealth to Jews simply because it is assumed that’s where Jews tend to excel. Apparently there are numerous books claiming the Rothschild family controls the U.S. Treasury; unbeknownst to me (or anyone else), J.P. Morgan and even the Roosevelts were Jewish. In the mainstream mindset of the Middle Kingdom, it would seem that the less than 2% of Americans who are Jews pull all the strings behind the machinations of the United States.

This echoes Japan’s 1919 “Fugu Plan” which was motivated by the Russian-disseminated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A scheme named after the poisonous delicacy, the Fugu fish, Japanese sought to control the “venomous” Jews while enjoying the fruits of their supposed wealth and power. By attracting the highly valuable Jews into Manchuria, the Japanese believed they could keep “Zion’s” dangers at bay. The history of Chinese-Japanese struggles, most recently those of this century such as the Nanjing Massacre, might be a possible explanation for Chinese sympathy toward Jewish struggles, though few have written about that topic just yet.

Many of the Jews living in Beijing understand the dark underbelly of these compliments, and try to convince Chinese that our successes are not the result of some inherent racial or ethnic quality. For example, when the stereotype is mentioned in conversation, the aforementioned Net entrepreneur will “explain to them that, actually, in any large enough population, intelligence (i.e. IQ) is likely to be normally distributed…” An argument that takes the steam out of genetic supremacy becomes more difficult in a nation that has historically relied on racial and ethnic essentialization to claim global ascendancy and racial superiority. It is not called the Middle Kingdom for nothing. And its recent resurgence in geopolitical power and presence is often seen as the nation’s birthright, dating back to its ancient inception.

Yet, that ancient inception serves as additional explanation for the appreciation of Jews witnessed in Beijing. The Chinese are proud of their 5000 (by some accounts 6000) years of history. At year 5768, the Jewish calendar might be the only one which surpasses it in length. By Chinese standards, that means wisdom and righteousness.

Not one of the Jews I’ve spoken with has experienced anti-Semitism. Mendelevich realizes “that [financial acumen] is a stereotype of Jews that can have negative connotations…however, when I hear it from a Chinese person I feel they mean it sincerely and with admiration.” He went on: “If anything, I’ve experienced pro-Semitism”—or what Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a leading website covering Chinese media, advertising and urban life, coined “semitophilia.”

It’s funny that as a response to this characterization, some card-carrying ex-pats have seen a renaissance in their Jewish lives. More than just a reaction to this stereotyping, however, is a noticeable pro-active move by almost all Beijing-based Jews toward the dynamic, tightly-knit local Jewish community, the importance of which becomes intensified by the transient nature of the local expatriate community. The aforementioned web entrepreneur began going to Chabad Beijing for Shabbat dinner, and met Jews from all over the world who were also “looking for a sense of community in China.” Shawn also attended Chabad, as well as the Reform congregation Friday night services. “From those places I formed friendships that I have maintained.”

Beijing’s Jewish institutions are crucial for Ori Elraviv, a young Israeli father who heads up Dragon Post, a company that customizes, optimizes and tests mobile applications. The Elraviv family usually spends time at the Israeli Embassy, or at Chabad House—where the eldest son of the two children is enrolled in school (and where he studies Hebrew, English and Mandarin). Likewise, the more progressive Kehillat minyan brings Michael, who works in the U.S. Embassy, and his wife Devorah a community with which they can share their pride—a newly-born daughter.

With the Israeli Embassy, Dini’s Kosher Market, a kosher restaurant, and Chabad all within walking distance—soon to be complemented by the new U.S. Embassy building—it becomes quite easy for Jews in Beijing to associate and meet. That said, these communities, like all previous Jewish gatherings in China, are fleeting. Devorah and family will return to the States within the year. The Elravivs are already looking for an exit strategy, or at least some means to reduce their time in China. Shawn and the entrepreneur came only to test their luck and business acumen in the world’s largest market, and plan to stay as long as it takes to establish their respective companies. Like the other ex-pats in Beijing, most people come either to study or to serve a rotation for their company or for the Foreign Service. A few others come on a whim, seeking adventure—and even the rare ones who settle roots here often return home once they’ve turned a profit or learned Chinese. As a result, the importance of such institutions as Chabad, the Kehillat minyan, or foreign embassies becomes heightened.

Regardless of the strength and prominence of said institutions, and the increased importance of religion for Jews who live in Beijing, the transient nature of the Jewish community means that few Chinese have opportunities to develop lasting friendships with us. In a country whose citizens are legally barred from learning about Judaism, personal relationships may be the only way for the Chinese to learn who we are beyond the stereotypes. As individuals move on, fewer Jews are left here to defend our religion, our culture—or to explain why, come December 25th, it’s better to wish Americans “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”


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