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Jewish World ReviewDec. 2, 1999 /23 Kislev, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Can the Jewish state afford a more moral foreign policy?

Israel’s China Syndrome — and Ours -- FOR THOSE OF US who have grown up defending the State of Israel against unfair accusations, the headlines last month detailing Clinton administration concerns about Israeli arms sales to China struck a familiar note.

The New York Times trumpeted the charge on its front page: “U.S. Seeks to Curb Israeli Arms Sale to China Air Force.” Other newspapers followed suit. No matter how many countries do something unsavory, the one that will get the publicity for it is inevitably Israel. As with trade with South Africa during the apartheid era, it doesn’t matter how small Israel’s share of such activity, you can always bet that it will receive the lion’s share of the bad publicity.

Except in this case, maybe Israel isn’t getting such a bum rap. Numerous reports, including The Times, credit Israel with being the second leading arms exporter (Russia, which was also involved the AWACS deal, is number one) to China. It is involved in a host of deals on a variety of armaments, including the development of technology that Israel first planned to use on its own Lavi jet aircraft — an Israeli initiative that the United States squelched.

Israel has been working hard to maintain good relations with the Beijing regime and the results have been impressive. High-ranking Chinese officials regularly visit Jerusalem, and Israeli sources are constantly hinting that — despite evidence to the contrary — their close ties with Beijing have prevented China from selling weapons to Arab countries and so nurtured support for the peace process.

The United States is angry about Israel helping to supply China with an AWACS airborne radar system similar to the ones that the U.S. has sold Arab countries (prompting a memorably bitter Capitol Hill fight in 1981). One cannot help but enjoy the irony of Israel giving Washington a taste of its own medicine.

Advocates of China-Israel ties say that unlike most of the rest of the world, the Chinese have no tradition of anti-Semitism. And given Israel’s ongoing dependence on the United States for arms and diplomatic support, it is understandable that it would try to cultivate good relations with another rising world power.

But when the rising world power in question is also the world’s largest tyranny, which represses religious believers, political dissidents and has committed cultural genocide in Tibet, should that change the equation? Is Israel obligated by the Jewish history of suffering persecution to take a second look at its China relationship?

The answer from many in Israel is a flat no.

Two years ago, then Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Natan Sharansky used a meeting with Chinese trade officials to issue a call for linkage between human rights violations and Israel’s willingness to deal with China.

This came a few months after Sharansky was criticized by this writer for meeting with China’s Vice Premier and failing to raise the issue of imprisoned Chinese dissidents.


Sharansky’s spokesperson told me at the time that Israeli Foreign Ministry officials had pressured the former prisoner of Zion to shut up about human rights. He was told that it was the Americans’ job to talk about human rights and none of Israel’s business.

But to Sharansky’s credit, he refused to keep quiet.

Unfortunately, the same pattern was repeated this week when Avraham Burg, the Speaker of Israel’s Knesset, invited the Dalai Lama, the renowned exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, to meet with him at the Knesset. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had a fit about it since the meeting coincided with a visit by Li Peng, the number two official in the Chinese Communist party hierarchy, to Jerusalem. The Dalai Lama was snubbed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other government officials while the Chinese leader got the red carpet treatment.

Burg went ahead with the meeting anyway and used the occassion to say that “Israel should have wider interests than its weapons industry or the arms trade.”

I think he’s right but the question remains: Can a small country which still has powerful enemies afford a moral foreign policy?

Israel was once bereft of allies (save for the United States) or even diplomatic relations with most Eastern European and Third World countries. But times have changed. Israel has a strong economy and now has relations with virtually any country it wants. It even feels strong enough to make serious territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace. After Oslo, Israel’s leaders can’t say its survival depends on a policy of making friends with anyone who will make a deal with it.

Let’s face facts. Israel’s arms deals allow the Chinese to evade restrictions on purchases of U.S. military technology that have been in place since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Of course, the United States is in no position to complain about Israel’s dealings with China. The Chinese have reportedly penetrated American security to get defense secrets. And though America went to war earlier this year over human rights violations in the Balkans, our leaders are not terribly interested in the numerically much larger outrages that continue in China and Tibet.

Nor is the American media doing much better. I find it curious that while Chinese dissidents still have trouble getting some journalists to take them seriously, daily newspapers across the nation made the death of the symbol of Chinese-American detente — Hsing-Hsing, a 28-year-old giant panda who had been given to the National Zoo in Washington — front page news. Is there a special Jewish obligation?

So in a world where great powers ignore suffering religious believers and democracy dissidents, does Israel or even American Jewry have any special obligation to make themselves heard on the issue?

In 1995, exiled Chinese dissident Harry Wu — the author of works on China’s own gulag archipelago called the laogai — briefly made headlines when he said Israel’s military ties to China were helping to perpetuate “evil.” He later apologized for singling out Israel and in a later book wrote that learning about Jewish suffering and the Holocaust helped him better understand his own country’s agony.

Wu wrote that when he visited Dachau, he was stunned when he learned the meaning of the slogan over the camp entrance “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free) since it was identical to slogans at the camps where he himself had suffered and millions of Chinese prisoners had perished.

Wu’s voice and that of other Chinese democracy activists has been virtually silenced in the Clinton administration’s rush to bring China into the World Trade Organization. American businessmen — including many Jews — continue to rush to get what they hope will be their share of the profits in the China trade. Outside of labor unions and Christian fundamentalists (each of which has its own agendas at play), there is little organized opposition.

The same excuses once trotted out for those who supported “engagement” with South Africa despite apartheid or closer ties with the former Soviet Union despite its oppression of Jews are now used by apologists for China. We are told that American business will gradually bring freedom to the world’s most populous nation despite evidence that repression there is growing, not decreasing.

In a week when Jews around the world are celebrating one of our own festivals of freedom — Chanukah — can we let ourselves be silent about China? Not so long ago, we were reminding the world that the fate of Soviet Jewry ought not to be sacrificed to detente or business opportunities in Moscow.

Are we such great hypocrites that we fail to see the analogy? When faced with the choice of trade or human rights, a Jewish community that cannot make up its mind has lost its moral compass. This Chanukah we need to find the courage to speak up for freedom in China and Tibet, as Knesset Speaker Burg did this week and Natan Sharansky did previously.

A moral foreign policy is not a luxury. Human rights is still a Jewish issue, whether or not Jews themselves are the victims.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin