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Jewish Journal

Can tolerance extend to China exhibition?

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 16, 2008 | 11:49 pm

One photo in the exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance shows Mordechai Olmert, founder of China's Betar and father of Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert. Another is of students at the famous Mir Yeshiva, which relocated from Europe after the community fell to the Soviets. Many more capture the flood of Jewish refugees who poured into Shanghai's port as they escaped Nazi persecution.

"Like 'Schindler,' 'Wallenberg' and 'Sugihara,' the name 'Shanghai' has now become synonymous with 'rescue' and 'haven' in the annals of the Holocaust," states a placard accompanying the exhibition.

The show, titled, "The Jews in Modern China," focuses on the century of peaceful relations for nomadic Jews in the Orient, from the 19th-century immigration of Russian and Sephardic Jews to the Cultural Revolution in 1966 that marked the end of an era.

Opening this week, the display highlights the better portion of China's historic humanitarian aid to Jews in need and avoids the darker human-rights record of the People's Republic. It comes to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, courtesy of the Chinese government, as the country continues preparing for the Summer Olympics and as human rights organizations say abuses in that country have increased.

Not surprisingly, museum officials have been sensitive about perceptions that they're assisting the Chinese public relations machine. Without being asked, both Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's associate dean, and Liebe Geft, museum director, told The Journal that politics played no role in the exhibition's content or timing.

"The interest is completely educational and cultural," Geft said. "The discussions on this exhibit began years ago. There is absolutely no intent for a political message. It is the story of two groups."

To be sure, China's human rights record has improved significantly since the days of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. But as the Aug. 8 opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics approaches, China has been under increasing criticism.

Human Rights in China reported last week an uptick in abuses "under the banner of the official 'Olympics Stability Drive,'" citing suppression of government criticism for school collapses in the Sichuan earthquake, harassment of those wanting to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and ongoing oppression of Tibet.

In 2001, China promised that hosting the Olympics would improve its commitment to human rights.

"They have not delivered on that," said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

He added that the government has been shipping out of Beijing both unwanted voices and undesirable faces, such as the people who make a living digging through the garbage for recyclables.

"For the principles that the Wiesenthal Center stands for, they should not be complicit in this airbrushing of history," Kine said. "China is a country in which there are severe and ongoing human rights abuses. To not mention those in any regard is a serious omission."

However, when the question of the exhibition was raised with Rabbi Harold Schulweis, founder of Jewish World Watch, he argued that while it is important for the world to continue pressuring China, the Museum of Tolerance made a pragmatic and "even morally wise" decision in broadening a channel between itself and the Chinese government.

"For the sake and possibility of peace for the future," Schulweis said, "one has to take advantage of any openness on the other side, whatever the motivation may be."

The exhibition, which unofficially opened June 17, is scheduled to run through Sept. 2, to be followed by a showcase of a Mexican diplomat in the south of France who helped 40,000 Spanish Republicans and Jews flee the fascists.

It is based on the research of Pan Guang, dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai. Cooper met Pan in 1989 and said he was dumbfounded by the scholar's appreciation for Jews -- so astonished that when Cooper visited Pan's home, he searched for a photo of a Jewish grandparent, anything to explain his academic interest. Cooper couldn't find one, but in Pan he found an important ally, whom he has been working with since.

Jewish immigration to China began in the mid-19th century with Sephardic Jews in search of trade with the British Empire. Persecuted Russian Jews, like Mordechai Olmert, who later left for Palestine, followed five decades later. They settled in Harbin, Shanghai and Tianjin, established their own organizations and newspapers and built schools and synagogues and cemeteries.

Life was modest for most, but a few, like Silas Aaron Hardoon, the richest Jew in the Far East, and Sir Elly Kadoorie, president of the Shanghai Zionist Association, lived affluent, influential lives.

The greatest influx began in 1933, after Hitler's rise to power. At the end of 1941, Shanghai was home to more than 20,000 densely packed Jewish refugees -- more than Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa combined.

The communist ascension created tension throughout China, the Jewish communities included, and by the 1950s, most Jews had migrated again. Few Jews -- about 1,000, according to the World Jewish Congress -- remain in the most populous country in the world, but philo-Semitism is more visible than it's been in decades, Cooper said.

"Mao's iron-clad anti-Israel stand couldn't stop this," said Cooper, who has taken numerous Chinese officials to Israel during the past decade. "It created a black hole in history, but it couldn't stop this underlying affinity."

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