Aron Shai, China and Israel: Chinese, Jews; Beijing, Jerusalem (1890-2018). Jewish Identities in Post-Modern Society. Academic Studies Press, 2019, 243 pp.
Ever since the publication in 1979 of Yitzhak Shichor’s classic The Middle East in China’s Foreign Policy, 1949-1977, which remains unmatched, along with his many articles over the years on various specific aspects of that policy, encompassing not only the Arab world but also the three major non-Arab powers of the region (Turkey, Iran, and Israel), scholarly circles have awaited some equally authoritative opus that would explore the four decades that have elapsed since. That expectation has been critical since Shichor’s foundational book analyzed Communist China’s foreign policy essentially as it was shaped and carried out in Mao’s era in association with his great disciple Zhou Enlai, who determined its contours and implemented it on the ground.
The present book by Aron Shai, which covers a vast era of 130 years, too vast for a single volume that presumes to record history, may have aimed too high. While Shai may have unconsciously attempted to update Shichor’s narrative to the present, he ended up instead with a rather journalistic survey of events, not only regarding its superficial method of skating over the surface but also in its many factual errors—both linguistic, in the transliteration of names and terms, and historical, all of which cannot be mentioned within the brief scope of this review.
Generally speaking, it is perhaps too ambitious to speak of the “foreign policy” of any nation, let alone that of small and secondary powers, as if their decision-makers met in dark rooms of hidden chanceries to devise ways of ruling the world. In fact, in all the major events of the world, great powers were driven to respond to foreign triggers not of their own making or intention. In the 20th century alone, the two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Middle Eastern conflicts, the collapse of communism, and other events have unfolded not because someone planned them as a manifestation of “foreign policy” but as improvised responses to unpredicted developments. It is perhaps more modest and realistic to speak of “foreign relations” between nations, which influence each other and engage in constant dialectics with each other.
That has been true of the relations between China and Israel, notwithstanding the vast disproportion in size. Yet the issue of the Jewish minority in China, which is the focus of the first part of the book—when Jews were stateless and totally at the mercy of their host countries in the Diaspora—was governed by totally different rules than the relations between sovereign countries. Hence this part, which includes an introduction on Chinese Jewry, has nothing to do with Beijing, Jerusalem (part of the book’s title), especially when only half the period of 130 years covered by the book is relevant to the mention of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel since it became a state in 1948.
Apart from the inclusion of ancillary issues that appear to have little to do with the book—as in Chapter 2 on “Moshe and Ya’akov—Two Jews in China” (referring to Moshe [Morris] Cohen and Jacob Rosenfeld)—one of the most striking misjudgments is the author’s approval of Israel’s early decision to yield to American pressure and refrain from pursuing a closer diplomatic relationship with China. The results were to set back normal relations between the two countries for several decades and to allow the PLO to establish its first embassy ever in any foreign country in Beijing in 1965, thus preceding Israel by almost three decades. Shai supports the improvement of Israel’s relations with China but also counsels Israel to revise its relations with Beijing in light of the latter’s recent rift with Washington over the trade balance and the recurring mutual sanctions that the two mammoth powers impose or threaten to impose on each other. Shai is aware, like everyone else, that Israel’s relations with the United States are much more crucial to its security and wellbeing than its ties with China, and that when the chips are down and Israel has to choose between the two superpowers, its choice is evident. That emerged clearly during the Phalcon crisis in the 1990s when Israel had to cancel that multimillion-dollar deal with China for the sale of a military-communications aircraft built on an American-made platform, after Washington raised strong objections that the sale would compromise its national security.
Nevertheless, the book, with the many anecdotal stories it recounts, partly based on unexplored and exotic sources, is not devoid of interest to the general reader. The most intriguing story concerns mythical businessman Shaul Eisenberg’s meteoric rise from refugee status to a mogul of international trade. The author of this review had the unique experience of taking part in that first clandestine delegation that, after much preparation and anticipation, made its way to China in Eisenberg’s private plane on a freezing cold night in February 1979. As an eyewitness and participant in that extraordinary happening, I can vouch for its authenticity, though some of the details and aspects of its background, political circumstances, participants, the content and ambience of the discussions, and the operational results that stemmed from them are not exactly reflective of the narrative that I shared with the author at his request.
All in all, while serious researchers can pass up this volume without losing much, it remains an intriguing story for the general public if not too much is expected of it. For the story of the Chinese Jews, which the book’s subtitle implies that it covers, one can easily find a plethora of well-documented works; regarding the main issue of Chinese-Israeli relations, which has become a major international concern as China rises to superpower status, I believe that Shichor’s books and articles remain the cornerstone of our scholarly knowledge on the subject. Shai’s book, despite its deficiencies, can nonetheless fulfill two useful functions: to update the coverage of the China-Israel story to the present time; and to provide, rather entertainingly, interesting and unexpected accounts of personal, informal, interstate, and international affairs.