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What Jews Can Teach Chinese, A View From China

Two writers explore the evolution of the Jewish and Chinese experiences, at home and abroad, finding lessons from what the two cultures share in common, and what they don't.

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Huang Wenzheng and Liang Jianzhang

BEIJING — Like the Chinese, not only do the Jews have natural gifts, but they are also a people with a tradition of respecting knowledge and attaching great importance to education.

Jews account for only 2.2% of America's population yet make up 21% of the students in the country's top 15 universities, according to U.S. News and World Report. Ethnic Chinese are just as good. In these same universities, American-born Asians account for 20% of the students, of whom about half are Chinese-Americans, including many from families at the bottom of society or who started as illegal immigrants.

When I first arrived in Boston, my host family was a restaurant owner from China's rural southeastern province of Fujian. His children were studying at Harvard, Stanford and Boston University.

History lessons

Since the Middle Ages, Jews have been scattered everywhere in Europe, often active in finance and trade. They are smart, diligent and good at business.

At the same time, we see ethnic Chinese finding great business success across Southeast Asia. Though Chinese only represent 6% of the region's population, they nevertheless account for two-thirds of those who own more than $1 billion in assets, according to Forbes. Of the 10 richest people in the region, nine are ethnic Chinese.

For example, though ethnic Chinese account for only 1.3% and 3.8%, respectively, of the Philippine and Indonesian population, listed companies are backed by ethnic Chinese capital in 55% and 73% of the two countries' businesses. Many of these families originally came as peasants from the southern provinces of Fujian and Canton.

Still, even while these ethnic Chinese can boast similar successes in education, scientific achievement and business, the Jewish position in the political, legal, media and artistic worlds in America far exceeds that of Chinese-Americans. Not many Jews participate in politics directly. Instead, they influence U.S. policies through political donations and lobbying. As one Jewish New Jersey newspaper reported last year, to express their political demands the state's Jewish groups chartered a bus to Washington. They managed to summon one-third of Congressional lawmakers for separate discussions.

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Chinatown, New York City (Photo - Paul Stein JC)

It is also beyond the imagination of outsiders how powerful the Jews are within mass media. Major U.S. newspapers, television networks and film production companies are either largely owned or controlled by Jews. Also, top American Internet companies such as Google and Facebook were also founded by Jewish people.

In addition to the Jews' superior languages skills, there are more profound reasons why they surpass the Chinese in politics, the legal profession and the mass media.

The main body of today's world civilization originated in Europe, where Jews had a presence across the continent. They participated throughout the whole process of the rise of the West and thus are involved in modern society in a manner unmatchable by the Chinese.

In the past, Jews were more inclined to succeed in business. But their experiences of discrimination, of persecution and of the Holocaust made them realize the importance of political strength, legal tools, the press and culture.

Meanwhile, Chinese culture places more esteem on courtesy, being low-key and self-disciplined. Its fundamental values and code of conduct are very different from that of the West.

Homelands and religions

There is also another important distinction: Longstanding cooperation and interaction between America and Israel have forged a tight alliance. Whereas the Jews in America feel righteous fighting in Washington for Israel's favor, there are enormous differences between China and the United States today — in culture, politics and ideology. It is a relationship between competitors or even rivals. For this, and other reasons, Chinese-Americans' identification with China rarely continues from the second generation onward. This makes it almost impossible for ethnic Chinese to fight for China's interests.

Jewish thinking has profoundly influenced human social development. The world's two most influential religions, Christianity and Islam, have deep roots in Judaism. Christians regard the central figure of their religion as the son of God. Jesus, who suffered and died for the sins of mankind, was a Jew as well as an important prophet for Islam.

In more recent centuries, David Ricardo, the master of Western classical economics, as well as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein were all Jews. Why have the Jews, a relatively small population, managed such outstanding contributions to human thought?

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Marais quarter, Paris (Photo - Andrea Schaffer)

It's because as the modern system of thought originated in Western countries, Jews were well-placed in the burgeoning scientific and philosophical fields. Not only do Jews attach great importance to knowledge and academic research, they, as a seperate ethnic group, also live along the edges of Western society in their cultural heritage as well as in their sense of identity. This has allowed them to cast doubt on what others may take for granted, which helps unshackle them from conventional thought.

Moreover, due to their various national backgrounds, there are huge differences in ideas and concepts among the Jews themselves, which, combined with a common identity, leaves them well-placed to understand basic laws of human society.

In contrast, since the Qin dynasty, China has always been a unified country. Due to its vast territory, massive population and undeveloped transportation and communications, the proportion of people geographically or psychologically marginalized is very small. Most people have a similar background, so the whole community's inclination in values, code of conduct and ideology have a strong homogeneity. When everyone around holds the same view on something, it is hard to doubt its correctness.

Chinese parroting of values hinders the country's progress in thinking and overall creativity. This helps explains why China is full of copycats and lags at innovation.

Pride and identity

Though very different among themselves, Jews in general are very proud of their Jewish identity. Israel's Law of Return stipulates that anyone with a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism has the right to settle in Israel.

Though the country's per capita natural resources are extremely scarce, modern Israel has been attracting Jewish immigration from around the world since its birth after World War II. These measures have enhanced a global Jewish sense of identity and belonging.

In comparison, while China's strength is booming, its elite class is increasingly disappearing abroad. And more generally, once emigration reaches the second generation, few identify themselves with their motherland.

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Wangfujing neighborhood, Beijing (Photo- Vuhung)

The Jewish people's cohesion is inseparable with the tenacious vitality of the Jewish religion and culture. Even if many secular Jews today disagree with Judaism, they nonetheless inherit the strong awareness of autonomy and self-esteem of their ancestors.

After 200 years of continuous efforts, Jews have revived Hebrew, making it an everyday language and achieving a linguistic miracle. While spreading to every corner of the world, they stubbornly maintain their cultural traditions and customs.

Jewish tips

Jewish civilization is no less ancient than the Chinese one. After thousands of years of wandering, Israel offers the Jews its long-awaited homeland in a small inhospitable slice of western Asia. All of Israel's surface area is just one-fourth as big as the Chinese city of Chongqing, and its people live under regular threats to security.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have become the undisputed master of the vast and fertile lands of eastern Asia. Its population is also exponentially greater than that of the Jews.

But it is outside Israel, in mainstream Jewish life, where work and thinking have integrated with the mainstream society of the West. Jews maintain their characteristics by kinship and a shared mentality.

Success in science, arts and business are established within the West's mainstream civilization, where Jews account for a tiny fraction of the population. The advantage comes not in being small but in being efficient; not in being big and strong but by each individual's shared competition and survival of the fittest — from low to high, from small to large.

There are two ways for a civilization to continue, by breeding or by assimilation. The latter depends on cultural attractiveness and in general would take generations to achieve. China's past strong assimilation ability was based on the attractiveness of its cultural core to its peripheral people. But China's cultural appeal has fallen since. Whether the overseas Chinese, the Taiwanese or the Hongkongese, they are all moving away to a certain extent.

The innate intelligence of the Chinese, with their emphasis on education and business, is no less than that of the Jews. What the Jews have achieved the Chinese can achieve too, and this on an incomparable scale.

What Chinese people need to learn from the Jews, above all, is their tolerance and appreciation of differences among themselves, the value they attach to their own people, and the insistence on their tradition.

If China could do this, combined with its great population advantage, it would be unstoppable.

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