Over the long weekend of 25-28 March 2016, Jerold Gotel from London, and Glenn Timmermans from the University of Macau, travelled to Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) in Chongqing in China for an ICJS weekend of Jewish learning.
Chongqing is one of the four municipal cities in China (the others being Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin), i.e. cities that are not part of provinces and so are self governing. It is also the largest of these, with a metropolitan population of over 33 million people! Apart from its immense size and population, Chongqing is important in recent Chinese history as the capital city during WWII and after the fall of Nanjing to Japanese forces in December 1937. Throughout the war it was extensively and continuously bombed; today it is a vast modern city with over one hundred universities and is the economic powerhouse of China’s western regions.
This weekend of Jewish learning was held mostly with students from the Department of English, within their Centre for Judaic and Israeli Studies, but was attended by students from a variety of departments and the turnout was impressive to say the least. On the Sunday afternoon – the only day students have off – over 70 filled a lecture theatre to listen to Jerold Gotel on the origins of Jews and Judaism. This was the first of a two-part lecture – and on the afternoon of 28 March, he took the students into the rabbinic age and the rise of Islam, covering three thousand years in four hours. Student response was exhilarating, and on both occasions the Q&A session has to be curtailed as it could have gone on indefinitely.
Glenn Timmermans had intended to talk about Jews in the Modern Age but after hearing how many students wanted to know about the Holocaust, historic and contemporary animosity towards Jews, and the obsession with ideas of Jewish influence, he decided to give a lecture on the history of antisemitism instead. Over a 90-minute lecture he took the students through the long and grim history of anti Judaism, from the beginnings of Christianity up to the end of the nineteenth century. Again, there was not time enough to answer the many questions students had, but in this the lecture series was more than successful as it was a ‘taster’ for the planned summer programme at SISU, when ICJS will run a week-long seminar on Jewish History and the Holocaust over 10–16 July.
During their brief visit to SISU, Jerry and Glenn were hosted by Professor Fu Xiaowei, head of the Centre for Judaic and Israeli Studies, and who they met in 2012 during the annual Yad Vashem Seminar for Chinese Educators in Jerusalem. Meetings and dinners were also held with the Vice-President of the University and the Dean of the Graduate School and plans laid for the forthcoming summer school, for which ICJS is now awaiting formal permission.
Throughout the three-and-half-days spent in Chongqing, Jerold and Glenn were with students at lunch, dinner and in between lectures; the learning was thus not confined to the lecture hall but was part of all interaction whether in taxi rides or over dinner or on walks around the campus.
SISU is a university where students go to learn a foreign language (over fourteen are offered) and classes are also offered in international relations and in business. These are students who will go on to become school and university teachers but also many will look for careers in trade, government and journalism. It is to be hoped that their interest in and exposure to Jewish history will enrich their own future lives in whichever careers they eventually choose.
Looking ahead, the ICJS summer programme at SISU in July is aiming to attract students from other universities in Chongqing, from Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, of which Chongqing was once a part, and also from Yunnan, the province immediately to the south west of Chongqing and Sichuan. Students from other parts of China will also be attending, as will teachers from various centres for Jewish studies in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Kaifeng and Shandong. ICJS chair and trustee, Joanna Millan, will also be teaching on this programme.