Last month, a B’nai B’rith leadership delegation visited two exceptionally important and also culturally rich countries: Japan, a key democratic ally of the United States, and China, the world’s most populous nation and a rapidly rising global superpower.
In both countries, the contingent met with senior officials, diplomats and experts responsible for implementing or guiding foreign policy, as well as with the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors and local Jewish leaders. The visit concluded with a meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
By now, both a Democratic and a Republican president have shifted considerable focus to East Asia after years of particularly intense concentration on the Middle East – otherwise known as West Asia – in the aftermath of both the 9/11 attacks and the Oslo peace process, whose 25th anniversary passed with tellingly little celebration last year.
International fatigue over conflict in the Middle East – together with many regional states’ focus on internal stability following a decade of “Arab Spring” upheaval, and unprecedented Arab-Israeli alignment on threats from Iran – could yet prod Palestinians away from a maximalist posture in their standoff with Israel.
Although Japan and even more so China have long been supportive of Palestinian positions, both these countries have increasingly robust ties, especially in the critical realms of trade and technology, with Israel – and both will undoubtedly become more mindful of the extent to which engagement with Israel has lost its stigma in many Arab countries, at least at the government level.
Indeed, Japan has of late adopted a less unbalanced voting record on Israel-related resolutions at the United Nations – though China, a permanent U.N. Security Council member and a leader among the developing states that effectively represent a majority of the U.N. membership, is surpassing Japan this year as the largest contributor to the budget of the world body after the United States. This said, yet another Chinese rival and traditional leader in the “non-aligned” bloc, India, has also perceptibly softened its public stance on Israel in keeping with flourishing ties under Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. Even Russia, with which China is closely associated in the Security Council and which has also partnered in key ways with Iran, has strengthened its interaction with Israel.
Moreover, all concerned – including both the Chinese and the Japanese, who were visited by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif just after the B’nai B’rith trip, while a subsequent stay by Abe in Tehran was marred by an attack, blamed by Washington on Iran, on a Japanese tanker in the Gulf of Oman – certainly also want to ensure good relations with Saudi Arabia and other energy-rich Sunni states. Several of those states have worked with Washington on both containing Tehran and attempting a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli impasse – this week, Bahrain even hosted the Trump administration’s initial conference on Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. Notably, at the start of May, the White House ended waivers on sanctions for oil imports from Iran, which had long been heavily patronized by Asian countries.
Beyond Middle Eastern issues, East Asia has dominated recent international attention more broadly. Intensely fought U.S. trade negotiations have been at an advanced stage with both Japan (where President Trump has just arrived for a summit of the G-20 in Osaka, after an official state visit to Tokyo only one month ago) and with China (whose President Xi Jinping is expected to again meet with Trump at the summit). Adding to the mix of geopolitical posturing and cooperation, Xi just concluded a visit in Pyongyang with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (who previously met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, also now in Osaka) after headline-making earlier talks with Trump. Right before the B’nai B’rith visit to Beijing, China also hosted a high-level international conference on the country’s monumentally expansive “Belt and Road Initiative,” which would embed China in a vast array of development and infrastructure projects globally. And, after a reign of 30 years, Japan’s Emperor Akihito abdicated – the first to do so in over two centuries – paving the way for the accession of his son, Naruhito.
B’nai B’rith has had longstanding ties to Japan – sending humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disasters, bringing several young leadership groups there and commemorating Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who defied his superiors’ orders by issuing thousands of life-saving visas to Jews in Lithuania during the Holocaust. B’nai B’rith can also claim a unique connection to China: in 1928, it established a lodge in Shanghai – a report two years later related that “When the Jews in Palestine issued their appeals for relief, the members in about fifteen minutes contributed $595,” then a significant amount, “which was later distributed through the agency of the Palestine B’nai B’rith lodge” – and soon afterward Shanghai become an exceedingly rare haven for thousands of European Jewish refugees during World War II.
Some nine decades after the founding of the local lodge, our B’nai B’rith delegation made a special stop in Shanghai to pay tribute to the welcome afforded to Holocaust-era Jews there.
Notwithstanding international rivalry and also disputes – some undeniably serious – engagement in and with Asia will be particularly vital in a century in which China’s political, economic and military ascendance will be an unsurpassed focal point. This rise will not be without challenges, but its reality and the potential to find common ground make critical the development of dialogue and mutual understanding across borders. In various Asian countries, this will be complicated somewhat by factors including cultural and ideological differences, as well as the small number of indigenous Jews. Jewish organizations more accustomed to interfacing with Christianity and Islam as religions closely tied to our own will have to seek greater familiarity with adherents of “non-Western” belief systems that do not necessarily utilize common categories and rigid hierarchies.
B’nai B’rith, however, is a uniquely global Jewish organization – and one with a record of uniquely broad service to people of diverse backgrounds. It is thus well-positioned to contribute both to the development of new friendships and to the bolstering of old ones in a most essential part of the world.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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