Asia

The Jewish Angle, Asia-Style

I landed back in Singapore last week, and jumped into a taxi at the airport. My driver was of the talkative variety, and maintained a constant chatter the whole ride home. He asked me the usual Singapore taxi-driver questions: “where have you flown from?”; “how long was the flight?”; “how long have you been living in Singapore?”; “how much is your rent?”; “what do you think of Singapore?

Eventually he asked me: “so, where are you from originally?” I answered Australia, but born in Israel.

The mere mention of Israel prompted my taxi-driver to launch into a long talk about his service in the Singapore army, which is compulsory for all Singapore males – during his time in the military, his trainers had all been Israelis, brought in to help toughen up the young Singaporean recruits. As a result, he told me, he was very fond of Israelis. He then told me that his niece had just returned from Israel – she had visited recently as a part of a group of Christian youth touring the land of the Bible. My taxi-driver went on to tell me that he greatly admired the Jews, who had been given only a small country with few natural resources, surrounded by incredibly hostile neighbours, and yet had managed to make their country flourish and grow. Against all the odds, and a lot like Singapore and the Singaporeans, he concluded.

Now, what is remarkable about this little episode is not that the Singaporean army system was modelled on and initially set up with assistance from Israel, although this is an interesting and often little known fact of history. Nor did I find it remarkable that a random taxi-driver in Singapore, a place with fewer than 1,000 Jewish residents, had launched into an unprompted monologue about the virtues of Israel and “the Jews”.

The really remarkable aspect, for me at least, is that I have heard variants of this “we love Israel, God bless the Jews” speech literally dozens of time, not just in Singapore but across Asia; and not just in taxis but in places as diverse as restaurants and stores and private homes, in offices and meeting rooms and airplanes. I even once had a similar conversation with the attendant in a shopping mall restroom.

In short, over the course of almost a decade of living and working in Asia, I have repeatedly and unexpectedly encountered what I can only describe as an almost bizarre fascination with, and deep admiration for, all things related to Israel and the Jews.

In Singapore, I long ago stopped keeping count of the number of times that I have met a Singaporean who proudly tell me that Singapore is “the Israel of Asia”. In many respects, this is an outcome of a strong history of co-operation between the State of Israel and the Republic of Singapore. For example, in his memoirs, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew notes that at the time around the formation of the modern Singaporean nation: “I gradually crystallised my thoughts and settled on a two-pronged strategy to overcome our disadvantages. The first was to leapfrog the region as the Israelis had done…. The Israelis, faced with a more hostile environment than ours, had found a way around their difficulties by leaping over their Arab neighbours….”

Born out of this early appreciation of the early days of Israeli statehood, many aspects of Singapore shortly after the country gained independence were modelled (at least in part) on the prior Israeli experience – the army and military structure; the system of public housing and rapid urban development; and the processes of integrating diverse peoples into a multicultural society.

Indeed, as a corollary, it is almost a running joke amongst some of my Singaporean colleagues that I am neither Australian or Israeli, but in fact Mexican. Again, as Lee Kuan Yew explains: “A small group of Israelis led by Colonel Jak Ellazari arrived in November 1965, followed by a team of six in December [for military training of Singapore’s nascent army]. To disguise their presence, we called them “Mexicans”. They looked swarthy enough”.

But rampant Jew-love it is not just a Singaporean phenomenon. Indeed, my first experience of Asia’s romance with all things Jewish came in Muslim Indonesia, of all places, about eight years ago, shortly after I had relocated to Singapore. I was invited for the first time to the home of a wealthy Indonesian businessman for dinner, where I found myself at a beautifully set table of eighteen, the polished silverware and crystal wine-glasses sparkling under the light cast by an ornate chandelier. The guest list consisted largely of Indonesian captains of industry. I was seated next to a senior Indonesian deputy-minister on one side, and the wife of the CEO of a large Indonesian conglomerate on the other. We had chatted about communications policy, the state of global financial markets, and a Sumatran children’s charity of which the CEO’s wife was the principal benefactor.

As our first course was set down in front of us and before we could start the meal, our host, a devout Christian, asked us to all bow our heads and join him in saying grace.

Thank you Jesus”, he began, “for bringing us this day, and for providing us with the bountiful food we are to eat. Let us always remember how blessed we are. And today we thank you especially, Oh Lord, for bringing one of your Chosen People to our table. We are doubly blessed that you have honoured us with his presence at this meal, so that your light may shine through him and onto all of us gathered here today”.

It took me a few seconds to register that the light-emitting Chosen Person he was referring to was, in fact, me. I looked up, and saw that seventeen faces around the long table were staring directly at me, their faces a mixture of welcoming smiles and curiosity, of the sort you might use when gazing at a small interesting animal in the zoo. Even today, many years later, I still fidget nervously when I think of that moment.

Visiting my parents in Israel earlier this year, I saw a spot on the local evening news about a group of Koreans who had been on a visit to a famous yeshiva (all male Jewish religious seminary) in Israel. One of the Korean visitors was interviewed and said, in halting English with Hebrew sub-titles below: “This is the reason why we came; to see the real Talmud….. the Jewish is known for Nobel Prize. This is the reason why Korean people are so serious about how Jewish people study, and why Jewish people are so smart”.

Fascinating, and a quick trawl of the internet later I had learned that, strange as it may sound, “the Talmud” is supposedly a widely read text in Korea. In an often quoted interview from 2011, Korea’s ambassador to Israel said that some study of the Talmud – or “The Light of Knowledge” as it is referred to in Korea – is part of the Korean school curriculum, for the following reason: “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics … We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.

To be fair, on researching this almost unbelievable claim I noticed that there has been considerable debate over whether this is all some form of urban myth – I mean seriously, Talmud in Korean public schools? And as best as I can make out, the truth lies somewhere in the middle – “the Talmud”, as referred to in Korea, is actually a collection of proverbs and Rabbinic stories translated from the Talmud and read and taught widely in Korea for their moral value, in much the way Western school children might be exposed to Aesop’s Fables.

Nonetheless, who cares really as to how authentic the Korean “Talmud” study program actually is? The point remains – in a far away Asian country, with no history of interaction with Jews, no natural connection to Israel and no obvious commonality with the People of the Book, and in a land where the Jewish population is effectively zero, the Jewish Talmud has been selected as a popular source for teaching folk wisdom to kids. Is it only me that finds this just a tiny bit weird?

I did some more research into the numbers, and they highlighted even further how strange this all is. Of the 14 million or so Jews in the world today, fewer than 30,000 are estimated to live in Asia. There are 5,000 or so Jews in Hong Kong, 4,000 in each of Japan and India, a few thousand in China and Singapore, and a handful in Thailand, Korea and other places. A small Jewish community thrived in the city of Kaifeng, in eastern China, for 700 years, but is now more historical oddity than anything else. Overall, Asia’s Jewish population represents around two-tenths of one percent of the world’s Jews. And add an extra ten decimal points if you want to figure out how small the Jewish population of Asia is as a percentage of the four billion people who live here.

The tiny Jewish presence in Asia has, over the years, attracted a disproportionately high-profile. Sun Yat-sen, one of the fathers of Chinese republicanism, often praised the Zionist movement as an example of how to attain national independence. As I mentioned earlier, in its formative years modern Singapore sought in many respects to model itself on Israel. In the business world, the Kadoorie family has been a mainstay in Hong Kong for decades, and the Sassoon family has had and continues to have extensive business interests across Asia. The Governor of Hong Kong at the turn of the last century, Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, as was David Marshall, first ever Chief Minister of Singapore. The list continues, but this is not nearly enough to provide a credible explanation for a pan-Asian fascination with the Jews.

Nor is it a religious thing. In Korea, perhaps, the sizeable and relatively Evangelical Christian population explains the interest in Israel and Jews – Christianity is the largest organized religion in South Korea, Seoul is the home to 11 of the world’s 12 largest standalone Christian congregations and the country provides more missionaries than any other country besides the USA. Until 2010, Korea was the largest source of Asian tourism to Israel (more recently replaced by India). But elsewhere in Asia, the populations are mainly Hindu, Confucian and Muslim – hardly the most fertile background for a deep and abiding interest in all things Jewish to develop.

No, as much as I might like to believe that the Asian interest in Jews and Israel comes from an enlightened place, it is in reality a good deal more crass. It would seem that the underlying motivation is actually more financial than anything else, rooted in the age-old notion that the Jews as a people are somehow smarter and harder working than anyone else; that Jews have a more developed focus on education and family values and business that anybody else; and that, as a result, this somehow all translates into the Jews having a relatively greater level of wealth and material success and power than anyone else.

So many times I have had an Asian colleague say to me without the slightest sense that it might be offensive: “you Jews are so good with money”. In Australia or anywhere in the West, this would be an overtly anti-Semitic comment worthy of punching someone in the nose; in Asia, however, you don’t do that because whilst clearly a racist stereotype, it comes from a place of such unashamed admiration and enthusiasm that it is really hard to complain.

Of all the places in Asia I have visited over the years, no-where have I experienced this admiration of the supposed money-making skills of the Jews more than in China.

I have been in Chinese business negotiations where for weeks you could scrape the frost off the walls of the meeting room, so cold was the tone of the discussions. Then, it would became apparent to my Chinese negotiating counterparties that I am Jewish or was born in Israel, and it would be like someone has thrown a magic switch: suddenly, just by virtue of me being Jewish, I was now someone who clearly knows how to “make money” and therefore a good person to do business with, and the whole course of the negotiations changed immediately. As I say, I have never been quite sure whether to be happy or dismayed when this sort of thing happens.

And, from amongst all these type of incidents that seem to have happened to me many times over the years, one in particular sticks in my mind as being entirely representative of the whole experience of being a Jew in Asia.

About six years ago I travelled to the industrial north of China, to visit a factory that processes a large percentage of the world’s silicon sands, which is an essential ingredient in ceramic glazes. The proprietor of the factory is an Australian, who had been living in China for many years, and has married a Chinese lady. Together, they have a single child (in accordance with China’s one child policy).

To reach the factory, we had driven from the nearest airport in Shenyang, speeding along for over three hours down a spanking brand-new four-lane freeway. Shenyang itself is one of those modern China marvels – a city virtually unheard of outside of China, with a population of, oh, plus minus five million people, a modern state-of-the art airport that would put most European airports to shame, and a downtown dominated by neon-lit glass skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls. The sudden rush of new wealth is evident everywhere you look, from the shiny new BMWs and Mercedes parked on every street to the brand-name stores occupying the city’s malls.

We travelled to the factory in a convoy of four vehicles, and after touring the factory for an hour, we all gathered back at the vehicles to begin the long return journey to Shenyang. At which point the Australian factory owner shouted some instructions in Chinese, and before I knew it, I was seated in the back of a black BMW with just his wife besides me. He popped his head into the window and said he would travel in a different vehicle and I would be making the return journey to Shenyang alone with his wife, because, as he mysteriously put it, his wife had “some questions” for me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this, and shortly after we set off, my host’s wife turned to me and asked: “you have children, so I want to know: what can you tell me about the secrets of being a Jewish parent?” I must have looked very confused, because she repeated it again: “I hear that Jewish parents have a special way of teaching their children. I want you to explain that to me so I can teach my child in the same way, and maybe he too can become rich and successful”. This from the wife of a guy who was, by any means, a fabulously successful and wealthy businessman in his own right. What the …?

It turns out that in the great march forward towards wealth and Louis Vuitton handbags, the notion of the Jews as having a Midas Touch has well and truly taken hold in China. I learned that in the last decade many “scholarly” articles have appeared in China about Judaism, with titles including: “The Reason Why There Are So Many Outstanding Jews“; “From the Success of Jews to Chinese Education“; “An Analysis of the Factors Behind the Cohesiveness of Jews.” Apparently, a few years ago the fourth most searched question on the internet in China, according to Google ranking statistics, was “why are Jews excellent?

Making the jump from so-called academia to popular culture, a multitude of books have appeared in Chinese bookshops with titles that would probably get them banned as anti-Semitic hate-literature if they were stocked in Western Countries. “The Secrets of the Jews”, “How to Be a Jewish Millionaire” and “Know All of the Money-Making Stories of the Talmud” are recent Chinese best-sellers, and other titles I have heard of include “Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom” and “Making Money the Jewish Way”. I could go on, but you get the point. These Chinese language books are found on shelves of bookshops and libraries across China, and as one commentator puts it, the dilemma is that these books are not anti-Semitic, with the stereotyping of Jews in China being “more complimentary than contemptuous“.

I experienced exactly that – compliment, not contempt; admiration, not anti-Semitism – in the back of the BMW that day, doing my best at 180 kilometres an hour to explain to an eager Chinese mother how my wife and I were raising our children. It was an exceedingly surreal experience that encapsulates for me the whole strangeness of the Asian attitude to Jews.

It only remains to be seen if my kids themselves realise how lucky they are to have access to this treasure trove of trademarked Jewish parenting methods. Indeed, my five-year old son has shown remarkable interest in accumulating his piggy-bank and managing how he spends his allowance, so maybe there is something in all this, after all.

1 reply »

  1. Interestingly enough, when Koreans started immigrating to the US in large numbers, a common pattern would be to seek out areas with a concentration of Jews. The assumption was that the schools would be better than elsewhere because of the value Jews place on education. Tenafly in New Jersey is one example of this pattern.

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