Written by Tang Buxi, May 2nd, 2008
This past week, leaders of the American Jewish community called upon Jewish athletes and tourists around the world, as well as U.S. President George Bush, to boycott the Beijing Olympics (more, more). They claim their activism is motivated by the Chinese governments’ relationship with Muslim nations like Syria and Iran, as well as claims of Chinese-funded genocide in Darfur. This wasn’t just an abstract media statement; I’ve seen personal evidence of grass-roots efforts from local Jewish communities calling on American Jews to support this boycott with more direct political action.
In recent years, discussion of Jews and Judism has become something of a “third rail” in the Western world. It’s a highly controversial issue that makes intelligent discussion nearly impossible, and certainly very dangerous. Touch the issue from the wrong angle, and you risk (intellectual death). This is understandable. Few peoples in recent memory have legitimately faced the risk of “genocide”, the violent extermination of an entire people on the basis of race and religion. In even trivial remarks, we can imagine the echoes of dangerous anti-Semitic extremism.
However, this is an important topic that can’t be left aside. I’m going to make an effort to explain why the American Jewish community’s stance on this is wrong, and why their policy might ultimately prove counter-productive.
JEWS IN CHINA
Let’s start by giving a little background on the history of Chinese/Jewish relations. In brief, there isn’t much.
While the Jewish diaspora spread throughout Europe (and subsequently North America), China was too far removed geographically to be directly involved. But the little interaction that existed historically between these two communities has always been benevolent, peaceful, and harmonious. History records the existence of a thriving Jewish community in the ancient trading city of Kaifeng in the 12th century. This very small community had zero contact with the rest of the Jewish world, but I consider it notable that it managed to retain many of its cultural and religious practices for almost a thousand years. World War II saw this relationship deepen; Germany had Oscar Schindler, and China had He Fengshan. He Fengshan was a Chinese diplomat that issued protective passports to Jews escaping Nazi Germany, allowing tens of thousands of Jews to escape the war by relocating to Shanghai. (Wikipedia reports: The total number of Jews entering Shanghai during this period equaled the number of Jews fleeing to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa combined.)
This has partly been possible because religious practices in China were usually not sectarian in nature. I hope to discuss this further in a future posting. But to put it simply, most of our Chinese ancestors by and large didn’t believe in the existence of a single religious “Truth”; all Gods and “Truths” were equally holy and sacred, as long as they were useful. More importantly, this meant the Chinese didn’t believe the believers of other faiths were enemies of their God or faith. The faith wars that have defined life in Europe for nearly two millennia were largely unknown in China. The declared faith of the average person was never an issue. Europe is filled with memories of various bloody Inquisitions for “heretics”; Chinese history books are very different.
The vast majority of Chinese worshipped selectively between different religions; listening to a Taoist monk yesterday, and prostrating in front of Buddha today. I believe it’s very probable that non-Jewish Chinese in Kaifeng would have occasionally lit candles on the Sabbath.
Judism itself is also relatively unique in Western religions in that it is non-missionary. Jews have never made converting others to their faith a central tenet of their religion. In a sense, the Chinese and Judism were almost designed to co-exist harmoniously. Neither party has any religious or political motivation for forcing changing upon the other. China represents at least one place on this planet where there is literally zero interest or support for anti-Semitic belief; for many Chinese, even the concept itself is difficult to grasp.
CHINA AND DARFUR
China’s involvement in Darfur deserves its own article. See “China and Genocide“. This is apparently the primary political factor motivating the American Jewish community now calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, and I encourage everyone to be properly informed on the issue.
POLITICS AND THE OLYMPICS
The Olympics should be a time where we put aside religious and political differences. It should be a time where Buddhists and Christians, Muslims and Jews come together in fair athletic competition. It’s an opportunity for us to put aside our races and our religions, and remember that our bodies are identical regardless of religious and political differences, that we’re all members of the human race first and foremost.
It should also be a time to put aside our political disputes. We have standing armies on the 38th parallel, soldiers walking the beat in Falluja, and a democratically elected government isolated in a Gaza ghetto. These are all serious issues that humanity hopes to solve, but there’s little hope that the solution for these conflicts can be solved on the basketball court, on the gymnastics mat, or on the track.
Jews have unfortunately been the targets of previous political campaigns linked to the Olympics. The 1936 Berlin Games were tightly linked to Adolf Hitler’s regime. The 1972 Munich Games are infamous for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the hands of Arab terrorists. Even as recently as the 2004 Olympics, an Iranian judo competitor Arash Miresmaeili refused to wrestle an Israeli athlete. For that matter, Israel’s attendance at the games is in and of itself a victory for the Olympic spirit; if the IOC voted along the lines of the United Nations General Assembly, Israel would probably find itself banned from every Olympics for political reasons (namely, the Palestinian conflict).
I consider all of these events some of the darkest stains on Olympic history. I therefore find it extremely disappointing, and extremely ironic, that the American Jewish community has decided to add a new page to this unworthy legacy.
In calling for Jewish athletes to boycott the Beijing Olympics, are these Jewish leaders not giving moral justification for those who call for a reverse boycott? Doesn’t this justify the decision of some countries, and possibly spectators, to reject athletes on the basis of their affiliation with Israel or Judism? Isn’t the American Jewish community justifying the actions of Arash Miresmaeili, and perhaps inspiring an encore performance from other athletes displeased with Israel’s foreign policy record? And by setting itself firmly in opposition to a cause that so many Chinese support from the bottom of their heart, is this campaign laying the seed for a deeper divide between Chinese and Judism in China itself?
Could this really be the world that the American Jewish community hopes to see?
NOTE: Please note that in the weeks following the initial boycott call, numerous Jewish organizations have issued their own releases, rejecting the concept of a boycott. The non-boycotting organizations are actually more representative of the Jewish mainstream, and I for am grateful for their wisdom on this issue. The organizations opposed to a boycott of the Beijing Olympics include: American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’Nai B’rith International… as well as numerous others.
NOTE2: Jewish voices opposing the boycott continue to be raised loudly; this is an article pubished in Forbes.