Israel studies seminar in China beats obstacles

Elie Rekhess, a Tel Aviv University faculty member and a visiting professor at Northwestern, lectures on Hamas and Islamic radicalism to Chinese scholars at Peking University on July 16, 2009. (Alison Klayman)

Elie Rekhess, a Tel Aviv University faculty member and a visiting professor at Northwestern, lectures on Hamas and Islamic radicalism to Chinese scholars at Peking University on July 16, 2009. (Alison Klayman)

BEIJING (JTA) — Chen Yiyi, a Peking University academic, said he was glad his institution was hosting the first major Israel studies seminar in China.

“But you can’t imagine how much trouble it took to get here,” said Chen, a scholar on the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture.

Despite many obstacles in putting on the workshops this month, the seminar completed its week at the university with positive reviews from the participants before moving on for two more weeks at Shandong University in Jinan.

As the most prestigious institution of higher learning in China’s capital, any programming at Peking University, or PKU, is subject to intense scrutiny.

When the university applied for approval to host the seminar from the Ministry of Education, the application was immediately passed to the Foreign Ministry, Chen said.

“They said an Israel studies seminar was a sensitive topic, could we cancel the seminar — or maybe rename it?” Chen recalled, saying the ministry wanted to omit the Israel studies aspect in the title.

Israel studies programs are relatively new in China, where Hebrew language and Jewish cultural studies were around as early as the mid-1980s. PKU founded its Hebrew language program in 1985, mostly for national security reasons.

While the Chinese are known for respecting Jews for the very reason they were historically demonized in the West — a fabled talent for money management – their Chinese impressions of Israel are more mixed.

The idea of Jewish professors lecturing on topics such as Zionism or Islamic radicalism to a room of Chinese academics raised concerns among school administrators and government officials.

China’s relationship to the Arab world played a part, too. China has become increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are relying more and more on Chinese markets.

The growing affinity was a major factor in the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation agreeing to fund the seminar.

“China is now concerned with understanding the Muslim world,” said Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and one of the seminar lecturers.

Wu Bingbing, an associate professor in the department of Arabic language and culture, said PKU is frequently approached by Arab countries who want to donate money.” He noted that Saudi Arabia offered his department funds to build a Center for Islamic Studies, as well as an eight-story Islamic library.

Oman already established a chair of Arabic studies at PKU, pledging more than $1 million over a five-year period. Kuwait and Iran also have expressed interest in donating an endowed chair.

Eventually the government approved five days of programming at PKU, but attendance was by invitation only and the title for the seminar was carefully worded.

On the official red banner hanging at the front of the room, the Chinese title read, “Antagonistic coexistence and development: Seminar on the Israel issue.”

The addition of the word “issue,” absent from the English name, connotes positive and negative considerations to the study of Israel.

Even after the seminar was approved and the banners were printed, it faced one more obstacle in early July: China’s relationship with its own Muslim population became a flashpoint when clashes between majority Han and Uighur Muslims forced the goverment to bring tens of thousands of troops to maintain order in the far-western Xinjiang region.

Chen was afraid the turmoil in Xinjiang would affect the seminar, but the ethnic violence broke out during the first week of summer vacation.

“If it was in September or October, I think 60 percent chance the conference would have been canceled,” he said.

Many of the Chinese Islamic and Persian scholars who attended the seminar said they were impressed by the efforts to present balanced views on Israel, perhaps indicating their prior concerns about bias from the all-Jewish cast of lecturers from abroad.

Seth Garz, the seminar’s project adviser, called it an “accidental strategy” to select a more liberal-leaning group of American and Israeli academics.

“We didn’t want the seminar to be too much hasbara,” he said, using the Hebrew word for public relations, “but academics tend to be more liberal anyway.”

Troen also emphasized that the seminar was meant to show Israel can stand criticism and scholarship.

In his lecture at PKU, Troene stressed that there is no singular way to teach Israel.

“There are lots of Zionist ideas,” he said. “Zionism is about Jews taking responsibility for their own history, their own future, their own fate.”

“The seminar talked about the structure of Israeli society, and the sophistication of the issues benefited us as scholars,” Chen said.

Troen said the Chinese have respect for an ancient civilization successfully functioning in the modern world. He said many of the Chinese scholars with whom he met were interested in learning from Jewish history and cultural evolution as it may apply to the experience of China and Chinese diasporas.

Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at the University of Haifa, thinks Israeli and Chinese societies have some parallels.

“I think both societies are still in formation,” he said. “They are not yet crystallized entities. Also, they’re both ideological societies — Zionist, Marxist –  but both with ideology on the decline.”

At Shandong University, the seminar was to focus more on student participation. The first day included about 100 attendees from graduate programs from Macau to Chengdu.

Garz said the seminar was an important step in encouraging the Jewish community to connect with emerging communities around the world.

“People don’t know about the real level of interest scholars and citizens in China have in studying the Jewish and Israeli experience,” he said. “Supporting this in China is worthwhile.”

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