Shanghai: 300 million Chinese and 3000 Jews

As we leave Siberia for Shanghai, we learn more about the Yiddish-Russian-speaking Jews of Siberia. I recall hearing Joseph Gann, Boston's late, great Jewish philanthropist (who lived until the ripe old age of 100) tell the story of his collecting tzedakah for his first synagogue capital campaign for the town in Siberia where he and his family fled. Today, the Gann name graces many synagogues and Jewish day schools in the Boston and Florida areas, including Veronica's High School - The Gann Academy. 

Also, we learn that Harbin, a former Siberian-Russian town, was incorporated into China in the mid-20th Century and was the hometown of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's father. From shivering in Siberia to showcasing “Start Up Nation” in just 60 years (and back to an Israeli prison for accepting bribes!) - What a transformation! 

We arrive in Shanghai on Monday night. We have allocated three days to experience modern China and try to understand the dizzying array of leaders and systems that flew through here and the historical and current role that global Jewry has played and is once again playing here.

Shanghai is a city of nearly 25 million people (!) and the financial and business capital for Southeastern China and its 300 million inhabitants. It is at the vanguard of Chinese capitalism, growing a thriving professional and middle class, and it is open to all comers. What role Jews and Israelis will have in the modern China is the question we have come to investigate.

Yael is our 31-year-old Israeli guide who has lived in Shanghai for the past 4 years, was an East Asian studies major at Haifa University, speaks fluent English, Hebrew, and Chinese and has launched a Chinese tour company. She patiently walks us through British and French colonialism, the Opium Wars, the fall of the Last Chinese Emperor, the rise of Nationalism and Communism, the Japanese Occupation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Chinese turn to America.

In addition, we will get briefings from Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Institute for Jewish Studies, and Arnon Perlman, Israeli Consul General to Shanghai.

Our explorations will not only be academic. Our plan is to experience the phases of Chinese history through visits to ancient water towns, pedestrian shopping malls, the colonial districts, Chinese gardens, local parks, communist propaganda mills, and 100-story skyscrapers (Zhujiajiao, Xiantiandi Street, The Bund, Yu Gardens, People's Park, and Shanghai World Financial Centre).

We learn that the Chinese respect the Jewish people because of our ancient culture (which predates theirs by 1000 years), our emphasis on literacy and education, our family values, and our ability to successfully navigate Western culture. They are amazed by our Nobel Prizes and our business success. The Chinese government have kept the glorious and heroic legacy of Jewish life in Shanghai alive by restoring synagogues, erecting museums, and placing plaques around the city.

The Israeli Counsel General tells us that the Chinese make no distinction between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. We are all Jews that are welcome partners in business dealings and we have their respect for our innovation and entrepreneurialism. They believe that by being friendly to us they will keep relations good with the United States, their most important strategic partner. In fact, he heard not one peep of protest during this summer's war with Hamas - what a contrast to Europe and even America.

We are staying at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, the newly restored, Sir Victor Sassoon built, Cathay Hotel which was at the center of Shanghai, the Paris of the Far East. We visit the museum in the hotel that documents Sir Victor's life and the good life he maintained at the hotel during the roaring 1920's. We learn that the Sassoon, Kadoorie, and Hardoon families, scions of Baghdadi Jewry, owned 50% of Shanghai, launched HSBC, and built hospitals, museums, and schools throughout the community.

Knighted by the King of England for his service to the Crown, Sir Victor and his friends built magnificent homes, synagogues, and schools and played a key role in setting up Shanghai as a refuge for European Jews during the Holocaust.

Although influential, the Baghdadi community of Shanghai was small and somewhat beleaguered at the beginning of the Japanese occupation. However, after Kristallnacht — when America turned 900 German-Jewish refugees on the St. Louis back to the death camps and while Schindler schemed to keep his 1000 Jewish employees at their posts (and not sent to Auschwitz) —  Japanese and Chinese envoys to Europe were persuaded to allow nearly 20,000 Jews to take refuge in Shanghai. And although Hitler tried to cajole his Japanese allies to adopt The Final Solution in Asia and offered to supply the camps and the crematoria, the political influence of the local Jewish community, the material support organized by JDC staffers (who were eventually imprisoned by the Japanese), and the kindness of ordinary Chinese families kept this group of refugees alive despite ghettoization, hunger and poverty conditions. Survivors of this ordeal include the entire Mir Yeshiva as well as Michael Blumenthal who eventually served as Nixon's Treasury Secretary.

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. As WWII ended, nearly all of the Jews of Shanghai left, the penniless ones still penniless; the rich ones with all of their property confiscated when Mao took over the country in 1949. Almost all ended up in America, Israel, or England. Today, the nearly hundred thousand Shanghai survivors and their descendants are reaching out to renew childhood friendships with their Chinese neighbors, skyping, visiting, and organizing reunions. The week we arrived, Shanghai publicly unveiled a “refugee wall” that contains the names of nearly 14,000 survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto. 

The rise of China is already having a major impact in the Jewish world. Sheldon Adelson, the world's fifth richest Jew, got that way with the concession to bring his Las Vegas Venetian hotel to Macao to serve the rising Chinese capitalists. A good portion of his $20 billion net worth is being channeled to Jewish philanthropy and he is the leading funder of the Taglit-Birthright trip that has taken 350,000 Diaspora Jewish young adults  to Israel, with a dramatic impact on their Jewish identity and intermarriage rates.

Israelis have expanded their diamond franchise to China through Shanghai. Recently Tnuva, the Israeli dairy company, agreed to be acquired by a Chinese company for $2.4 billion. Dozens of other deals have been completed or are in the works. As they say, Chinese capital and Israeli knowhow is transforming China and will eventually transform the world.

One area that shows promise is water and environmental sustainability. Israel has been a pioneer in water, solar power, and electric car technology, and China has made a serious commitment here. China is the number one auto market in the world (which is hard to believe, as we couldn’t find a car in Beijing when we were there 22 years ago) and the number one energy user and carbon emitter in the world. They have finally woken up to the fact that they are desperately energy insecure and are shortening their own life spans because of the pollution (equivalent to smoking 2 packs a day). All during our trip we read about major policy initiatives: Tesla opening 400 charging stations, gasoline taxes to subsidize 50% of the cost of electric cars, putting 20 million electric cars on the road by 2030, and rapidly expanding installation of solar photovoltaic panels. These are all technologies that the U.S.-Israel cleantech ecosystem can help them with.

In the old days, a Jew who wanted to do business in Shanghai needed political connections, money, and the backing of a big business behind him. Now Shanghai is filled with what I call “Superempowered Jews (SJs)”. These SJs are in their 20's and 30's, speak 3-10 languages, have lived and thrived in several countries and have come to seek their thrills and fortunes in Shanghai. Smartphone- and tablet-connected, these Jews are at the vanguard of the new Chinese gold rush and will be central to the future of the Jewish world, wherever they end up.