Time to make friends with India and China

By Zaki Cooper, May 23, 2008

It is in our interests to reach out to the world’s emerging superpowers

The Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi, who lived in the 12th century, famously said: “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.” He was referring to a deep-seated longing for Zion, but these days the talk about the East is dominated by China and India.

The growth of these two countries — “Chindia” for short —  is one of the great stories of our time, a central feature of the rampant march of globalisation. The rise of the Tiger and the Elephant has obvious consequences for the economic and political world order — but also for the Jewish world.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the sole superpower. Its economic might, military superiority and cultural reach have given it a hegemony enjoyed by no other state.

Clearly the US dominance has suited the Jewish world. We have been reassured by America’s steadfast support for Israel, by the fact that whether a Republican or Democrat was in the White House, the strong bonds between America and Israel remained intact. In his new book The Much Too Promised Land, Middle East commentator Aaron David Miller points out that no presidential candidate can run for office without being a friend of Israel. The US, too, has provided a home for the leading Jewish diaspora community. This is no accident.

When other countries closed their minds and borders to Jewish immigration, America provided a home where Jews could worship freely and where their creative and intellectual contributions flourished. Whilst the US is not about to drop off the map of geo-political influence and will continue to be a dominant force in global affairs, the global balance is certainly shifting. The rise of Chindia has led many commentators to talk about a move from a uni-polar world to a multi-polar order. At the very least, these countries are set to become increasingly important trading and economic forces, and political players too. There is much talk that the 21st century will be the Chinese century, and there is a growing literature on these countries, as Westerners seek to increase their understanding.

The economies of China and India are growing at a rate that is incomprehensible in modern Western terms. In 1980 China and India each had only three per cent of global output, yet by 2003 they had a combined total of 19 per cent; projections suggest that their share of global output will rise further to 19 per cent and eight per cent respectively by 2015.

With China’s manufacturing output, it is growing at an annual rate of approximately nine per cent. Its economy is expected to overtake America’s by 2020 as the largest in the world. India’s growth has been spurred by its IT, software and services sector. Once a country which infamously struggled to exceed three per cent growth — disparagingly labelled the “Hindu rate of growth” — it has now exhibited annual growth rates of seven per cent or more.

Together these countries have one-third of the world’s population, with India’s population
(currently 1.1 billion) expected to overtake China’s (1.3 billion) before 2030. Looking at these figures through a Jewish prism — with the current worldwide Jewish population of around 14 million — the sheer number of people is hard to comprehend. It was Milton Himmelfarb who once quipped that Jews number less than “the statistical error in the Chinese census”.

The growth rates of these countries represent a shifting of the global economic order, which will have far-reaching political implications.

The awarding of the Olympic Games to Beijing has been controversial, given China’s human-rights records towards Tibet, and more recently its policy towards Sudan. India has been lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council, and there are signs that it might get its way. The British government has also been courting China and India, with Gordon Brown visiting both countries in January.

Of course, Israel already has well established bilateral relations with China and India. It has enjoyed official diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1992, and they have been strengthened by trade agreements, especially in the technology and defence industries. Trade between the two countries has grown quickly, from $54 million in 1992 to $3.39 billion in 2006. Similarly, bilateral trade between India and Israel has rapidly increased since the start of full diplomatic relations in 1992.

But as much as Israel establishing ties with these countries is to be welcomed, it is not only nation states which need to develop relations with them, but also faith communities. The precedent for nation-faith bilateral relationships is well-established in the other direction, with Israel forging links with the Anglican Communion, Catholic Church and other religious denominations.

The rise of Chindia is happening before our eyes. It should not just be observed by Jewish leaders and the Jewish world. We need to get in the game. Of course, the starting point is not a blank sheet. The history of Jews in these countries is a useful reference point. Jews have been in India for hundreds of years. They were active in trade and commerce, making a substantial contribution to Indian society. Luminaries included Sir David Sassoon, who donated to one of India’s most famous landmarks, the Gateway of India in Mumbai, and Governor Jack Jacob, who served in the Indian military in the war against Bangladesh in 1971. There is still a small but active community in Mumbai, although the communities in Calcutta and Cochin now number fewer than 50 each.

China does not have a parallel indigenous Jewish community to speak of, but Jews have been in China for hundreds of years. The prestigious Mir Yeshiva moved there during the Second World War, while today both Beijing and Shanghai contain hundreds of Jews, often there on business or for academic study. The renowned community in Hong Kong, numbering a few thousand, has had a presence there for over 150 years, and has been supplemented by many British, American and other diaspora Jews spending short periods there, often in international law, finance or commerce. Both China and India therefore have a small Jewish presence, which is likely to grow in the business cities of Mumbai and Shanghai, as well as remain significant in the commercial hub of Hong Kong.

So what can we actually do? First, engage in a dialogue. Just as Jewish groups meet with Christian and Muslim groups, we should look to do the same with Chinese and Indian groups. The dialogue could be based on overlapping values, whether respect for the elderly, promotion of education or such like. There is immense respect for Jewish values and achievements in some of the higher echelons of Indian and Chinese society. Furthermore both civilisations have no history of antisemitism.

The dialogue could take place at all levels, from grassroots meetings between groups in cities like London to international summitry. The Indian Jewish Association UK, established in 1996, already forges close relations between Indians and Jews based on broadening social and communal ties. On the international stage, groups like the World Jewish Congress are also pursuing this agenda, for example meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister in November 2006 to discuss international affairs. The fact that India is, broadly speaking, a religious country, whereas Communist China is not, also enhances the opportunities for inter-faith dialogue, particularly on Hindu-Jewish relations. The chief rabbinate of
Israel has also made a concerted effort to engage with the Hindu community. Earlier this year a group of Rabbis met some Hindu religious leaders for the second Jewish-Hindu leadership summit in Jerusalem. British groups should take note.

The second thing we can do is encourage Jewish studies at universities in these countries, and embark on other educational and academic link-ups. Both Chinese and Indian cultures value education, and admire the Jewish passion for learning. Jewish academics should be encouraged to visit and give lectures, and Jewish students and young professionals on short-term placements could be encouraged to undertake some ambassadorial roles.

More chairs in Jewish studies could be established at universities in China and India. New programmes could be channelled through figures such as Professor Fu Youde (director of Shandong University’s Centre for Judaic and Interreligious Studies) and Professor Xu Xin (of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University), as well as a number of philosemitic professors at Indian universities.

Third, alongside the economic boom, both China and India suffer from terrible poverty. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has said that “the danger of India moving in the direction of being half California and half sub-Saharan Africa is a real one”. An estimated 100 million people in China live below the poverty line, whilst in India the figure is closer to 350 million. Visitors to either country can be shocked by the scale of human suffering, material deprivation and hunger. Mindful of the Jewish injunction of tikkun olam — fixing the world — we should do what we can to assist with poverty-reduction programmes. British charities such as Tezedek and World Jewish Relief are already active in this area, helping both the Jewish and non-Jewish poor around the world, but so much more could be done.

Fourth, “the Jew in the pew” can go and see these countries, visiting the Jewish communities where they exist. They will find already there an eclectic mix of their brethren, from the archetypal American businessman and the British professor, to the Israeli student, already in these countries. There is an increasing range of Jewish tours, some of them kosher, organising visits to China and India. Whilst we Jews only have a small presence in these countries, it is important that some of the business and political elite there know a little about Jews, our history and traditions — and that we know them.

These bridges between the Jewish world and Chindia can be facilitated by diaspora Jews who already have well-established ties in the East, from the lawyer who spent a number of years in the Hong King office to the businessman who travels periodically to China to visit a manufacturing plant, to the IT whiz who visits Mumbai for work. Some international Jewish bodies such as the World Jewish Congress have already instigated engagement in this area, holding meetings with Chinese government as long ago as 1989. The Jerusalem-based think-tank, the Jewish People Planning Policy Institute, is running a project focusing on Jewish relations with emerging superpowers.

Of course, there are some who will point to the difficulty of a diffuse global religious people establishing relations with a nation-state and its people. Others will point to the linguistic and cultural differences between the two sides, not insignificant when one contrasts China’s one-child-per-family policy with the Charedi birthrate, or the ambivalent attitude of the Chinese government towards religion in general. A third critique reasons that relations with other emerging economies such as Brazil, Mexico and Russia are equally valid and important.

But none of this detracts from the fundamental importance of seeking to enhance relations between world Jewry and Chindia.

This will not happen overnight, but it will also not happen without a push from those who work inside the Jewish institutional infrastructure. There is a shifting economic and political reality, to which British Jewry and its sister communities throughout the world must respond.

Zaki Cooper is the Director of Business for New Europe, a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews and a consultant to the Cambridge inter-faith programme

Last updated: 3:22pm, August 19 2008