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Jews in Harbin Special> Jews in Harbin
UPDATED: August-5-2008 Web Exclusive
Jews in Harbin

The former Jewish high school and old synagogue in Tongjiang Street in Harbin (SHI GANG)

This year is the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel, and is also the 16th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel. Currently, the bilateral annual trade volume has surpassed $5 billion, and is 100 times more than the trade volume in 1992 when they first set up diplomatic relations. China has become the most important Far East trade partner of Israel. Some experts believed that Jewish activities in China in the early part of the last century had not only enhanced bi-lateral relations, but also laid solid foundations for future economic cooperation.

Historical records show that in the early 20th century a lot of Jewish people gathered in Harbin, provincial capital of Heilongjiang Province. In order to tap into the historical connections between the Jews and Harbin, Beijing Review reporters interviewed Qu Wei, President of the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, and also an expert in studying Jewish activities in Harbin.

Beijing Review: Why did so many Jewish people come to Harbin instead of other cities in other countries?

Qu Wei: I think there are a few reasons.

The construction of the Mid-east Railway brought a lot of Jewish people who had once lived in Russia to Harbin City, which is a bordering city to Russia.

The Russo-Japanese War was another reason. From 1904-05, about 100,000 Russian soldiers went to China's northeast area to fight with the Japanese for this area. About one third of the Russian soldiers were Jewish. After Russia was defeated, an anti-Semitic wave in Russia accused the Jewish soldiers of being the major culprit for the defeat. It purported that the Jews sponsored the Japanese in the war. Under such circumstances, a large number of Jewish soldiers stayed in Harbin and other cities in China's northeastern area.

The discrimination against the Jews in Russia had also made some Jewish people leave their hometowns for Harbin. In Russia, the work was divided into several ranks, and Jewish people were not allowed to take good occupations. But in Harbin, Jews were free to do anything. They had freedom in education, publishing, and choosing a career, which was totally different from the situation in Russia. Therefore, they were willing to live in Harbin.

The October Revolution in Russia took the assets of many Jews. The Russian government enacted favorable policies and encouraged its citizens to migrate to China's Heilongjiang Province. As a result, many Jews chose to leave Russia and came to China.

What did Harbin residents view of Jews at that time?

At that time, Harbin residents were sympathetic for Jewish sufferings in Russia. Moreover, Harbin people admired Jewish wisdom and diligence. Jews and Chinese lived in the same community peacefully and they often helped each other in many aspects.

For example, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's father made a lot of Chinese friends when he lived in Harbin. When Jews started to set up their own country--Israel, Olmert's parents wanted to go back to Israel, but were refused by their grandparents, who did not provide any traveling expenses. But on knowing their intent, local Harbin residents offered a teaching job. After two years, when the couple made enough money, they left Harbin to fight for the founding of Israel. When Olmert's father wrote a memoir, he made a vivid depiction of this experience, which showed his intimacy with the Harbin city.

In the early 20th century, Jewish people were discriminated and tortured in many countries. But they did not have the same painful experience in China. Can you explain why?

The Chinese and Jewish peoples are two great nations with many sufferings and both were invaded and occupied by other nations. The same experiences in contemporary times brought them even closer.

Judging by the realistic factor, Harbin at that time could be regarded as a special administration, where Russia was responsible for the Mid-east Railway, and the Chinese took charge of maintaining city security. Harbin was ruled by many different powers, which provided a free space for Jewish people.

Meanwhile, the Chinese people are kind, tolerant, and benevolent. They do not have repulsive sentiments for other nationalities. Instead, they usually learn from other nations with an open mind. The Jewish lives in China actually showed the essence of Chinese culture.

After studying Jewish culture for so many years, what do you think we should learn from them?

We should learn a lot from the Jewish people. Why they are so rich even after suffering so much? This is also a question we are thinking of.

I think we should learn from them in the following aspects.

Education is the key. The whole Jewish nation attaches great importance to education. No matter how poor they were, they never gave up education to children. The Jewish people are diligent and avid learners. That's why they have many well-known scientists like Albert Einstein.

Their team spirit is also a major contributor to their success in doing business. Wherever they are in the world, they often live in the same community. Their religious belief brings them together. After Israel was founded, the Jewish people who once lived in Harbin established an association. The association has done a lot. For instance, they sponsored Jewish people who lived in Harbin to get educations, and supported Jewish cooperation with Harbin and China at large.

As a matter of fact, I believe the Jewish gene is a very important factor. We all know that we must be diligent and creative if we want to create successful businesses. But in practice, not many people can stick to it. We tend to be lazy, ineffective and cannot overcome our shortcomings. Then why is it that the Jewish people can? I think there must be something different in their genes.

When the interview went to a close, Mr. Qu expressed his greetings through Beijing Review to Jewish people who had once lived in Harbin, and invited them to come back and visit the city so as to enhance the friendship between the two peoples.

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