China: ‘hunger for Jewish knowledge’

Jerry and aid Dr Rosenfeld

ICJS trustee Jerold Gotel, with the former aide to Dr Jacob Rosenfeld, surgeon general of the Chinese 4th root army – and one of two Jewish generals in the Chinese army during WWII

Bound for China, where he is running the latest seminar on Holocaust studies and Jewish history, ICJS trustee Jerold Gotel explains how the China education programme first got off the ground.

Gotel, who was previously director of the overseas division of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, explains: “My brief at the LJCC was to develop Holocaust education in Eastern Europe.”

“But at the same time as this was getting off the ground, in 2001, I was asked to lead a Holocaust education conference in Hong Kong. It turned into a tremendous success, and the following year I was invited by the academic Xu Xin, whom I had met in Hong Kong, to a conference he was running about the Jews of China – the history of Harbin, Shanghai and Kaifeng.”

Working with a group of programme directors and teachers at the LJCC, Gotel pioneered the first ever teaching programme on Jewish, Holocaust and genocide studies in China. Over the decade that followed, the LJCC team provided lectures and seminars at various top-tier Chinese universities, such as Kunming, Nanjing, Kaifeng, Xian and Shanghai, at the same time making teaching materials available for these and other Chinese universities.

They started up an annual week-long summer conference, run at various Chinese universities – which over the years has reached over 1,500 students and teachers from all over China. They also introduced British, Israeli, French, German and American lecturers to Chinese audiences through the support of the LJCC and the International Task Force and Claims Conference, now known as IHRA.

“I fell in love with China on that first trip,” recalls Gotel.

“I came back and started to read Chinese history, to study Mandarin at SOAS in London. Then one day, the penny dropped. We were teaching the Holocaust in places where there was still endemic antisemitism. But there had never been antisemitism in China. The Chinese don’t think that way. In China, I discovered a hunger for knowledge of matters Jewish, as well as for European history.”

In an uncertain world, education can bind people together

Joanna Millan and students

The position and security of the Jewish people in the world today remains as uncertain and vulnerable as it has ever done in the modern era. Antisemitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, the US and the Middle East.

At the same time, we’re witnessing the 21st century world tilt towards Asia – and East Asia in particular. China’s current troubles notwithstanding, the country is still predicted to rise to the global economic number 1 spot within the next few years.

In recognition of these power shifts eastwards, the International Centre for Jewish Studies was founded in 2015 to build strong, positive and sustainable relationships between the nations of East Asia and the Jewish people.

Educational programmes are a proven and effective way of building and strengthening such relationships. Experience has shown that when academics, teachers, students, government officials and others in China and wider East Asia have been exposed to Jewish and Holocaust history, there has been a direct and positive impact on their sentiment towards Jewish people.

Experience has also demonstrated that there is a significant benefit to the recipients of such education. When people learn how to relate their own national history and traumas to those of the Jewish nation, they discover new insights and develop their understanding of how best to identify and counter racial and religious prejudice – wherever they find it.