Israel Studies Seminar in China Beats Obstacles

Source: JTA, 7-27-09

Chen Yiyi, a Peking University academic, said he was glad his institution was hosting the first major Israel studies seminar in China. “But you can’t imagine how much trouble it took to get here,” said Chen, a scholar on the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture. Despite many obstacles in putting on the workshops this month, the seminar completed its week at the university with positive reviews from the participants before moving on for two more weeks at Shandong University in Jinan.

As the most prestigious institution of higher learning in China’s capital, any programming at Peking University, or PKU, is subject to intense scrutiny. When the university applied for approval to host the seminar from the Ministry of Education, the application was immediately passed to the Foreign Ministry, Chen said. “They said an Israel studies seminar was a sensitive topic, could we cancel the seminar—or maybe rename it?” Chen recalled, saying the ministry wanted to omit the Israel studies aspect in the title.

Israel studies programs are relatively new in China, where Hebrew language and Jewish cultural studies were around as early as the mid-1980s. PKU founded its Hebrew language program in 1985, mostly for national security reasons. While the Chinese are known for respecting Jews for the very reason they were historically demonized in the West—a fabled talent for money management – their Chinese impressions of Israel are more mixed.

The idea of Jewish professors lecturing on topics such as Zionism or Islamic radicalism to a room of Chinese academics raised concerns among school administrators and government officials. China’s relationship to the Arab world played a part, too. China has become increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are relying more and more on Chinese markets. The growing affinity was a major factor in the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation agreeing to fund the seminar. “China is now concerned with understanding the Muslim world,” said Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and one of the seminar lecturers…..

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