Around the Jewish World Chinese City with Jewish Past Reaching out Now to World Jewry

While much of the world is focusing on China as an awakening economic giant, this enterprising city of over four million in northeastern China is increasing efforts to reach out to world Jewry. Stand at the entrance of the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences — under whose aegis the Harbin Jews Research Center falls — and observe visitors to the two-year-old, 400-photo “Jews in Harbin” exhibit.

They’re tourists from Chicago and New York, ambassadors and officials from Israel, missions from American Jewish organizations, scholars from Australia and the United States and children from Harbin schools.

The Xinhua News Agency recently announced that the academy and its Jewish research center are restoring two synagogues and a Jewish school at a cost of $3.5 million, with funding coming from the governor’s office.

“We want to bring that historical friendship into current friendship,” Qu Wei, president of the ! academy and the Harbin Jews Research Center, said in a July interview with JTA. “We want to show the cooperation between the Israeli people and the Chinese people.”

A week earlier, Wei and the center’s deputy director, Li Shu Xiao, greeted Israeli Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, whose grandfather is buried in the Harbin Jewish Cemetery, which the center calls the largest in the Far East.

Olmert’s father, Mordechai, escaped with his parents from war-torn Russia after World War I. Mordechai Olmert was a founder of the Betar Revisionist youth movement in Harbin, and he and his wife — whom he met in Harbin — were among the first to emigrate from here to Israel in the early 1930s.

In the 1920s and ’30s, thousands of Jews fleeing communist Russia and Nazi Germany found refuge in this northeastern Chinese city near the Russian border.

From the late 19th century, Harbin had been something of a Russian city on Chinese territory. A spur of the Trans-Siberian railroad kno! wn as the Chinese Eastern Railway, built and operated by Russia, ran t hrough town.

Jews who wanted to flee the oppressive life in the Pale of Settlement found relief and a home in this Russian enclave. The czar even encouraged Jewish immigration to the area in order to populate it.

By the end of World War I, the 10,000 Jews here made Harbin the largest Jewish center in the Far East. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, thousands of Jews and White Russians — fugitives from war, Bolshevism and famine — arrived in the city.

By the 1930s, at least 20,000 Jews lived in Harbin, where cultural life was heavily Russian and Jewish.

Why the outreach to the Jewish community today?

Barry Jacobs, a China watcher and director of strategic studies for the American Jewish Committee, says the Chinese “have great respect for the success of the Jewish Diaspora, both intellectually and economically.”

In a telephone interview from his office in Washington, Jacobs added that “the Chinese people see the Jewish people as a useful colleague and su! pporter economically and politically. They also see Israel as a dynamic and successful state that offers China a valuable example of high-technology and development.”

One finds further insight in the Harbin Jews Research Center itself. One of the center’s goals is “to study the successful experiences of Jewish people in economy, science and technology, culture and education,” according to the mission statement in the center’s brochure.

Bates Gill, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “China is undertaking a very pro-active, omni-directional policy, in which they are actively reaching out internationally in friendship.”

From Aug. 30 to Sept. 3, the center will host an academic conference called “The History and Culture of Harbin Jews,” drawing scholars from the United States, Israel, Russia, Australia and China.

After the conference, a 30-member mission from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which once provid! ed welfare to Jewish refugees in China, is due to arrive in Harbin as part of its trip to the Russian Far East.

The center’s literature expresses China’s friendship with the Jewish people and says the Chinese “look forward to their return.”

When Jews lived in Harbin, they were welcomed and anti-Semitism was limited to White Russian hooligans and gangs often encouraged by the Japanese occupiers.

The Jewish exodus began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, followed by World War II, the Soviet occupation of 1945-’47, China’s Communist revolution and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

By 1951, nearly all the Jews of Harbin had emigrated, mostly to Israel but also to Australia, the United States and other countries.

Walking through the former Jewish district, Li points out formerly Jewish-owned movie houses, banks and cinemas, the famous Moderne Hotel, the former Jewish hospital and orphanage and other Jewish communal institutions.

Li has spent his adult life researching the material, and has made several trips t! o Israel to visit the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv and meet with former Harbiners.

The Jews and their institutions here are long gone. Only one Jew now lives here permanently — an Israeli named Dan Ben Canaan who settled in Harbin as a foreign language teacher and English radio broadcaster — while some Jewish students are studying temporarily in schools here.

The former Old Synagogue, built in 1909, now is a hotel. Next door stands the former Jewish school, now a Korean school.

Nearby is the so-called “New Synagogue” — completed in 1921 — which is now an empty, government-owned building.

Though Judaism is not officially recognized by the Chinese government, work is scheduled this fall to reconstruct the New Synagogue, the first of the two shuls to be restored as a museum and the site of the “Jews in Harbin” exhibit.

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