Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews in Asia – a What-if?

I wonder sometimes what Asians would feel towards Jews if Jews had lived in these countries in significant numbers and for significant periods of time. We say that China is one of the only countries in which anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, but that’s not strictly fair or true. China didn’t have the opportunity to develop anti-Semitism, because there were simply never enough strict Jews here.

 India, however, is a good example of a country with long-time Jews and no anti-Semitism (the recent attacks are neither India-based nor aimed against Indian Jews). What would it be like in China? Would Jews – as a consequence of being a minority – be scapegoated, hated, ostracized in the same way? Or would it be as it is in India – different, because of an altogether different combination of factors that led to altogether different results? As opposed to Western or Middle Eastern countries where Jews lived, flourished and were persecuted, in India there is no single predominant religion. Hinduism (simplified) is best defined as a collection of similar-but-different beliefs, traditions, languages and culture. Each mix is unique, but the spiritual-traditional aspect is central to Indian identity. Everyone believes in something or other, and that something is always a little bit different from everyone else’s. So no one cared or noticed if one group of people was praying to an unseen god, or not working on the seventh day of the week, or had strange dietary habits. Every group had its own quirks.

So I wonder if in the East Asian countries it would have been the same (same), but different. What would Judaism have looked like here in big numbers? The picture is not the same as in the West, but it’s also not like in India.

Perhaps people are right when they say that Chinese and Jewish cultures are similar. I think they refer to the work ethic, the importance of family, and the value placed on learning. To me it seems that although it’s true that these are common traits, the cultural consequences of them are so different that it outweighs the fact that the original values are the same. The “way of being” is too different. This might be in part because of the other, multi-facetted influences Judaism has had, as well as the development of Chinese history and the effects it has had on culture and people (most recently communism, which Chinese people do not fail to notice was originally conceived by a Jew…too ironic to my point? I wonder).

Perhaps if the two cultures had mixed – truly mixed, in that way that only history can achieve – they would have benefitted from and nourished each other. It certainly seems like that’s what happened during the time when the Jewish refugees were here and coexisted with Chinese people.
There is now so much renewed interest for the continued collaboration between the two cultures, with all its complexities and challenges. I’m realizing now, as I finish this post, how utterly privileged I am to be thrown right into the heart of it all.  I AM this experiment, right alongside my Chinese co-workers. It’s kind of fun. 

1 comment:

  1. Reading your notes is like being there with you. Amazing narration, keep it up, and share your experiences, they are full with insights.
    Take care, and please write about the Jewish community in Shanghai.