Last month, I traveled to Asia to discover how Israel is telling its story on the world’s most populous continent. What lessons could be brought back to North American campuses, I wondered.
I traveled to China, Vietnam and Hong Kong, meeting with Israel’s deputy ambassador to China, Jonathan Zadka, and its economic and cultural attaché, as well as Israel’s ambassador to Vietnam, Nadav Eshcar. Everywhere I went, the message I heard was the same: Israel is a growing phenomenon in East and Southeast Asia. The Jewish state’s innovation, advancements and achievements are not merely a source of fascination to millions of Asians – they offer them inspiration and motivation.
Wearing my kippah, I took to the streets of Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hong Kong. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I attracted the attention of countless passersby, who enquired as to the meaning of my out-of-place garb. In Beijing, I had a conversation with a couple who explained to me that they saw tremendous similarities between Israel and China. Astonished, I asked them what connections they could possibly identify between a country the size of Lake Ontario with a population under nine million on the one hand, and a global powerhouse that’s 450 times larger in size and 155 times more populous on the other. After all, I had just learned that the paved roads in greater Beijing stretch longer than the entire State of Israel.
They told me that while Israel may only be 70 years old, it is built on the shoulders of an ancient Jewish civilization that stretches back thousands of years. Similarly, China is a modern country that’s only 69 years old, and yet it is an ancient civilization.
In Vietnam, the Israeli embassy is building an enormous vertical rice paddy, which is on display in the centre of the capital, Hanoi. As Israel’s ambassador to Vietnam and Laos explained to me, the idea isn’t merely to show off the Jewish state’s technological prowess, it’s to demonstrate a link between two very different countries. The rice paddy was under construction during my visit and it was attracting significant attention from locals who stopped to look and take photographs at the unusual sight. It was a display of Israeli ingenuity that’s relevant to millions of Vietnamese who make their livelihood from rice farming.
During my conversations, nearly 100 in total, I encountered many stereotypes about Jews. Some of them – like that Jews are all rich, intelligent and active in the banking and media sectors – would make many Canadian Jews wince. However, those who made the statements intended them as compliments. In their minds, Jews work hard and are intelligent. It seemed only natural to them that intelligence and hard work would beget success. By contrast, two subjects I heard virtually nothing about were the boycott campaign against Israel and its ongoing conflict with its Arab neighbours. When asked, most people confirmed that they were indeed familiar with some conflict. They simply didn’t think to mention it.
Back in Canada, I oversee a team of people who work to train pro-Israel student leaders to tell the truth about the Jewish state and combat anti-Israel misinformation wherever they may find it. Unfortunately, our work does not go unopposed: the anti-Israel movement has actively sought to win converts to its cause for decades, often identifying perceived “victimized” groups with which to build coalitions and relationships.
The lesson of my trip seems clear: these Asian societies represent cultures with virtually no history of anti-Semitism, populated by people who understand more about Israel than we often realize. Building on Israel’s success engaging the peoples of East and Southeast Asia, pro-Israel student activists have a tremendous opportunity to tell the truth about Israel to Asians in Canada who want to learn. These are allies we cannot afford to ignore.