An Israeli Lobby in China?

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An Israeli Lobby in China?

There is a growing pro-Israeli advocacy within China.

An Israeli Lobby in China?
Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Earlier this year, StandWithUs (SWU), a pro-Israeli American advocacy group that coordinates its activities closely with the Israeli government, finally unveiled an SWU-China division for its organization in an event that marked a joint celebration of the Chinese New Year and Jewish Tu B’Shvat in Jerusalem (involving, interestingly enough, talks by three Israel Defense Force soldiers from China’s Kaifeng Jewish community).

The creation of SWU-China follows years of tentative public diplomacy and engagement that started around 2009, and in which China has increasingly been identified by the SWU leadership “as a country in which we can make a difference,” according to SWU’s Director Michael Dickson. He saw the SWU playing a major role in combating “misinformation in the Chinese media about Israel” and “Islamic anti-Israel propaganda on university campuses.” This would be accomplished, according to Ayala Sherman-Oren, the SWU-Asia director, by “utilizing social media, university programs, and networking events” that would serve “to connect and cultivate relationships between Israel’s and Asia’s business professionals and social leaders” – effectively, “the next generation of the Chinese leadership.”

SWU’s outreach into China is but the latest manifestation of a growing decade-long trend in which a network of loosely affiliated pro-Israeli organizations – largely Jewish American in character – and embracing a number of think tanks, universities, lobbyist groups, philanthropist foundations, and activist-scholars, are actively seeking to alter Chinese perceptions of Israel, with a particular focus on effecting this change among influential academic and policymaking institutions and universities there. The assumption underlying this approach is that in the absence of traditional channels for lobbying in China, influencing such centers of knowledge production becomes the only effective means of re-shaping Beijing’s views in ways that may serve Israeli interests over the long run. Many of these groups have traditionally been involved in pro-Israeli advocacy outreach in the United States and bring with them considerable logistical, organizational, and even ideational experience not to mention specific models of advocacy that they seek to reproduce within China.

Three Trends

What is driving this phenomenon in China? It can be attributed to three major developments or trends. The first relates to the emergence of a more consolidated pro-Israeli “academic-focused” campaign in the United States from the early 2000s. This trend was catalyzed largely by a growing perception among Jewish-American organizations in the late 1990s that Israel was suffering an “image problem” on American campuses, reflected in the vocalization of pro-Palestinian sentiments. This was epitomized in the entrenchment of anti-Israel attitudes in Middle East Departments, the proliferation of endorsements for the “Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) campaigns, as well as the spread of “Students for Justice in Palestine” chapters across the country, among other indicators.

Major pro-Israeli foundations and groups responded in a number of ways, including the creation of an Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) embracing over thirty-three organizations (including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Virtual Library, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center) which would, according to one spokesperson from the Israeli Foreign Ministry “evaluate the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities on college campuses across North America”; the funding of numerous Israel Studies Programs (ISP) across the United States (the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005 reported on this trend, noting that Jewish American philanthropists “sought to counter what they [saw] as a pro-Palestinian propagandist view of Israel by endowing chairs, centers, and programs in Israel studies”); and more generally the construction of various bodies – like the Schusterman Centre in Brandeis University or the Schusterman-funded Israel Institute (2012) in Washington D.C. – that would offer guidance, networking, and faculty development grants aimed at wresting back control of the narrative on American campuses. Many of these Jewish-American initiatives are coordinated and implemented in conjunction with the Israeli government which sees such campaigns as necessary and complementing its own public diplomacy efforts (Brand Israel) – which picked up considerable steam from 2006 onwards – to counteract growing criticisms and calls of support for BDS.

The second development concerns the growth of interest – both within Israeli officialdom and the activist pro-Israeli American Jewish community – in China itself. This interest mirrored the global enthusiasm surrounding China’s rise observed globally, but by the 2000s it had morphed (in ways that interestingly mimic similar tendencies in Arab countries at roughly the same time) into a more obviously strategic interest in the role China might play in the Middle East. This is augmented by the perception that China’s cultural, religious and political foundations (its lack of an anti-Semitic legacy and presumed “Oriental” civilizational affinity with Jews) render it a potential friend and even ally of Israel and the global Jewish community. This is reinforced still further when taking into account China’s interest in Israeli technology (where considerable academic cooperation takes place) and weaponry, hand in hand with its complete disinterest in participating in any economic sanctions against Israel, BDS or otherwise. The appeal of this is accentuated – in the eyes of the Israeli and Jewish-American right-wing – by the fact that it comes at a time when Europe and even the U.S. appear to be succumbing – according to Netanyahu at least – to a “wave of Islamization, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”

More importantly, there is a perception that the Chinese pubic and elite are increasingly receptive to Israeli security and anti-secessionist discourses in so far as both states presumably share similar problems in dealing with restive Muslim populations (the ongoing escalation of violence in Xinjiang and the associated acts of terror, most notably the knives attack in Kunming, have helped foster a “War on Terror” mentality within the country) and various territorial disputes with their neighbors. Naturally, these various narratives are espoused widely by pro-Israel advocacy groups already operating in China, although the most comprehensive discussion on these takes place in Shalom Wald’s 120-page strategy paper published for the Jewish People’s Public Policy Institute, titled “China and the Jewish People: Old Civilization in a New Era.” In it, Wald stresses the need for non-Israeli Jewish organizations (mostly American), whom he deems as being less problematic in the Chinese context due to Arab and Muslim sensibilities regarding Israeli ones, to take on the role of creating an academic infrastructure in China that would guarantee them the ability to influence Chinese policymaking on issues of ‘existential’ concern for the Jewish people and Israel.

The third trend is connected to the emergence of an indigenous Judaic academic infrastructure in China during the 1980s and 1990s with ties to various Jewish-American organizations. During the “honeymoon” period, a limited space was opened for Chinese scholars to pursue independent research on issues and topics related to Judaism and, more significantly, to reach out to foreign groups abroad mostly as a way to procure funding, materials and networking opportunities. Officials permitted these links as a way to both create alternative political channels with Israel prior to 1992, and to foster ties with groups perceived to have an influence on U.S. politics. Following the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and China in 1992, these links with both Israeli and American organizations grew exponentially, fueled in part by the optimism that pervaded the early Oslo years and the Chinese government’s lifting of the various taboos surrounding the discussion of Israel and Zionism within academic circles in China.

It is worth underlining that much of the early engagement between Chinese academia and pro-Israeli groups was still being driven by Chinese scholars themselves – for a variety of professional, academic, and monetary reasons. Xu Xin – the head of the Nanjing Judaic Studies Institute – is an illustrative example of this dynamic. Since the late 1980s, Xu Xin has actively courted significant funding from the American Jewish community to back his many projects concentrated in Nanjing University, which range from the Institute of Jewish Studies (later renamed in 2006 the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies), a Judaica library to multiple workshops held for Chinese scholars and students interested in Judaism and Israel.

The convergence of these three trends produced the current advocacy phenomenon that has emerged in China from the mid-2000s and onwards: Jewish American organizations, with a new-found appreciation for China as a result of the changing discourses about Israel and Zionism in the West, and building on a pre-existing Judaic Studies infrastructure (as well as a more permissive political atmosphere in China at the end of the decade) began to reproduce the academic advocacy model developed in the U.S. throughout the country. This was initially expressed through the holding of low-key workshops and conferences (with Peking University or Shanghai Jiaotong) by major organizations such as the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation and the Schusterman Foundation, that would supposedly aim to “rectify misinformation about Israel” held by those who Sanford R. Cardin (president of the Schusterman Foundation) identified as having “a direct hand in shaping Chinese policy toward the Middle East.”

By 2010, however, advocacy efforts had become far more pronounced, and had given way to the formation of a dedicated NGO called the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL), created in 2011 to help create “a broad-based academic framework that will foster long-term alliances between Israel and China.” Although seemingly the brainchild of the Israeli Yale University graduate Catrice Witte, SIGNAL is actually a by-product of collaborative efforts on the part of Jewish American organizations, with a degree of backing from the Israeli government. SIGNAL receives its funding from a slew of major donors, including the Klarman Foundation, implicated according to some reports in supporting the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. SIGNAL also boasts a web of affiliations with Israel-based universities, Israeli and conservative American think tanks, and various advocacy organizations. One should also not forget the “ideological” affiliations with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Bernard Lewis, and a slew of former Israeli Ministry of Defense officials and Mossad heads, some of whom espouse “hawkish” and in certain cases “pro-settlement” views.

With these resources and connections at its disposal, SIGNAL has made considerable strides in China over a short period of time. Between 2011 and 2013, SIGNAL successfully established six ISPs across the country, with another five under development. Supplementing this, SIGNAL co-sponsors a four-month long training program with Bar Illan University and Yad Vesham that is typically funded by Schusterman Scholarships or grants from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. It usually begins with a nineteen-day Holocaust seminar at Yad Vesham, where participants are exposed to Jewish historical narratives, and involves exposure to Israeli understandings of its national founding and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some participants are sent to Brandeis University in the U.S. and are enrolled in seminars and courses connected with Schusterman-backed entities such as the Israel Institute. SIGNAL also provides books and other resources (supplied by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, the AJC and many others) for these ISPs.

Beyond these programs, SIGNAL is involved in other activities, including arranging strategic dialogues with Chinese think tanks and government organizations, providing a media platform on weibo for Israeli discourses, and arranging extensive country-wide lecture tours by Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers, including individuals such as Saul Singer (famous for his book, Startup Nation), Harold Rhode (a former U.S. state Department official with ties to the neoconservative movement and the Clarion Fund), and Dore Gold (a former Israeli ambassador to the UN as well as head of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Policy). SIGNAL has also tried to cultivate channels of strategic dialogue with key government-associated research think tanks in order to promote “a more accurate understanding of Israel and the region.”

SIGNAL’s activism in the Chinese scene appears to have peaked sometime between 2012 and 2014. While still pursuing its various objectives and tasks – and even picking up some of those “abandoned” by other groups such as The Israel Project – its importance in the context of pro-Israeli advocacy appears to be declining somewhat as more foundations and groups, far more familiar with China than ever before, enter the scene independently or continue to follow their own projects. (For instance, the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation offered Xu Xin’s institute in Nanjing a major $1 million endowment in 2012 that transformed it into “The Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israeli Studies) This might reflect growing concerns surrounding the effectiveness of SIGNAL, communicated to me in the past by certain scholars and those involved in pro-Israeli advocacy in China.

In any case, what is obvious is that among certain advocacy circles in the U.S. there is a growing interest in and appreciation of China that comes as a reaction to both its global ascendancy as well as a changing global landscape towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These groups are surmounting successfully traditional impediments, establishing nearly a dozen ISPs in China, cultivating links with key think tanks and groups, and engaging the Chinese public through a variety of channels and mediums (a success that could be amplified considerably given the lack of similar initiatives emanating from alternative sources). While it is certainly difficult to gauge how successful these new trends in advocacy will be in effecting a change in China’s foreign policy over the long-run – especially when taking into consideration the structural and ideational challenges they face – and whether in fact we can speak of an “Israel lobby,” it is a trend well worth watching either way.

Mohammed Al-Sudairi is an LSE-Peking University graduate student. He spent two years in Beijing studying Chinese and undertaking freelance research.