The Growing Phenomenon of Pro-Israeli Advocacy in Chinese Academia

[The prominent and powerful role of the Israeli Lobby in the policies and practices of the imperialist world system, often described as a special relationship with the US (and closely related Canadian and European) imperialists, is not limited to those relations.  Israeli strategic planners actively pursue the widest range  of imperialist relations; they will not be tethered to the success of US hegemonism, especially when crises and internal contentions and surrogate instability are matched by growing global challenges from China and others.  The news of the Sino-Israeli alliance-building may surprise those  “anti-imperialists” who confine their opposition (and pro-Palestinian activism) to the US (and US-led) forces allied with Israel, but imperialism is a larger system, and Israel will not confine its fortunes to the US. — Frontlines ed.]

Over the last decade, a network of loosely affiliated pro-Israeli organizationsembracing a number of think tanks, universities, lobbyist groups, foundations, activist-scholars as well as donorshave successfully established a foothold in Chinese academia. The aim of these groups in China has been to provide a platform for espousing hasbaraa Hebrew term for “explanation” denoting the utilization of diplomatic, media, and political mediums to clarify and defend Israel’s positions and actionsthat would serve to re-shape Chinese academic perceptions of the Jewish state. The logic underlying this advocacy is that it would eventually influencegiven prevailing assumptions about the Chinese government’s reliance on the opinion of scholars and expertsthe calculations of Chinese policymakers, nudging them toward positions more conducive to the preservation and maximization of Israeli interests over the long-term.

[Image of a graphic that demonstrates the SIGNAL backed ISP zones in China. Image from]


This form of advocacy should be distinguished from its state-sponsored counterpart in that it remains relatively disorganized (though this is quickly changing), more-focused on low-key academic engagement, and largely propelled by the efforts of Jewish American donors and organizations. It should be noted of course that notwithstanding these differences, there is a high degree of overlap between these two forms of advocacy, particularly in terms of their messaging themes and styles as both promote for instance the notion of Israel as a “Startup Nation” or as an embodiment of an ancient civilization that has successfully embraced technological modernity. It is unsurprising therefore that the Israeli state offers support, and even coordinates—mainly through its diplomatic organs but also through state affiliated organizations and think tanks—the activities of the Jewish-American diaspora in China.

The emergence of this advocacy phenomenon in China could be attributed to three major developments. The first relates to the appearance of a more consolidated pro-Israeli advocacy campaign targeting universities and academies in the United States. This trend was catalyzed mostly by a growing perception from the late 1990s among Jewish American organizations that Israel was increasingly suffering from an “image problem” within the United States, and particularly following major confrontations such as the Second Intifada (2001), the Lebanon War (2006), and the successive Gaza Wars (2009, 2012, and 2014).

Reflecting this worrying trend has been the supposed “shift” in established narratives within US academies and universities towards more pro-Palestinian stances, as epitomized more recently by the proliferation of endorsements for “Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions” campaign amongst various academic groups and the spread of “Students for Justice in Palestine” chapters across the country (and the high visibility of associated “Israel Apartheid Week” events, etc). This “anti-Israeli turn” in academic settings was deemed by certain figures in the Jewish American community, such as Mitchell Bard (director of the Jewish Virtual Library), the outcome of a long-standing “politicization of the study of the Middle East by professors who abused their positions to advance an anti-Israel agenda” and “present Arab views on Middle East history and their-usually sanitized-version of Islam.” This politicization is often associated with the influx of Gulf and Arab money into American universities which, hand in hand with the supposedly “corrupting” influence of the late Edward Said, has created an environment wherein anti-Zionist (and presumably anti-Semitic) discourses are gaining traction and thriving.

The pro-Israeli Jewish American community has responded to this with general alarm. In 2002, and under the umbrella of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, thirty-three major Jewish organizations and groups, including the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Virtual Library, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Hillel, came together to create the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC.) The ICC—created according to one Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson because “Jewish organizations in the United States have marked Israel’s image in the academic sphere as an issue of extreme strategic importance”—was entrusted to “evaluate the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities on college campuses across North America,” and function as a “central coordinating and strategic body to address campus issues and intelligently impact a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.” A major component towards countering “the intentional misinformation and demonization of Israel and Zionist history,” would necessitate, as Brandeis University’s President Jehuda Reinharz outlined in his “Call to Action,” “the creation of first-rate, scholarly Middle East centers around the country,” that would help “bring balance to the study of the Middle East on college campuses.”

In 2005 the Chronicle of Higher Education noted the materialization of this academic-focused activism,reporting that Jewish American philanthropists “sought to counter what they [saw] as a pro-Palestinian propagandist view of Israel by endowing chairs, centers, and programs in Israel studies.” As a result, and over the past few years, Israel Studies Programs (ISP) have mushroomed all across the United States, with programs now to be found in Columbia University, Emory University, Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, the University of California, the University of Chicago, and New York University among many others. The Schusterman Foundation has generally sought to provide some coherence and coordination for the growth and development of ISPs and other affiliated projects, primarily through the ICC, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies located in Brandeis University (2007), and the Israel Institute in Washington D.C. (2012), which offer guidance, networking, and faculty development grants for interested parties.

The second development concerns the growing interest both within Israel and the American Jewish community in China itself. This development mirrored the general global enthusiasm regarding the opportunities to be found—mainly in the economic realm—surrounding “China’s Rise” in the 1990s. In some respects, it also reflects the recalibration of the strategic assessments of many states vis-à-vis Beijing’s growing clout following the end of the Cold War. This enthusiasm however soon morphed (particularly after the 2000s) amongst some pro-Israeli circles into a perception that China’s cultural, religious and political foundations—i.e. principally its lack of an anti-Semitic legacy (and supposed possession of a philo-Semitic culture)—and its presumed “Eastern” civilizational affinity with the Jews makes it a potential friend and even ally for Israel and the global Jewish community. This line of argument was strengthened further by perceptionsof mounting Chinese interest in what Israel has to offer (technology, weapons, etc.) and more importantly by China’s, or Asia’s more broadly speaking, prospective role as an alternative economic conduit for Israel at a time in which calls for BDS are gaining traction in the West. This narrative has been promoted by some influential Israeli scholars such as Dr. Shalom Saloman Wald from the Jewish People’s Public Policy Institute[1] and board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His 120-page strategy paper entitled China and the Jewish People: Old Civilizations in a New Era, for instance, called upon non-Israeli Jewish organizations—whom he deemed less problematic in the Chinese political context due to Beijing’s sensitivity about offending Arab states and Muslim constituents—to lay down the foundations and infrastructure within China that would ultimately guarantee them the ability to influence Chinese policymaking on issues of “existential concern” for the Jewish people and Israel.

The third development surrounds the emergence of an indigenous Judaic and Hebrew-focused academic infrastructure in China in the late 1980s and 1990s with ties to Jewish American organizations. While China’s reform and opening up period still operated under the rubric of revolutionary Maoist rhetoric of support for the Palestinian and Arab causes (albeit with subtle alterations noticeable since Hua Guofeng’s time), a limited space was opened for Chinese scholars to pursue independent research on issues related to Judaism, Judaic culture and the Hebrew language[2], and more significantly to reach out to foreign groups abroad. Officials saw political utility in permitting these linkages, which opened new channels of communication with Israel prior to 1992, and influential American organizations abroad – particularly those with perceived influence in US politics. Additionally, these connections were also seen as beneficial for strengthening local “knowledge production” on these topics. For Chinese Judaic scholars of the first generation—including such figures as Pan Guang, Xu Xin, Wang Yi-Sha, Fu Youde, Zhang Qianhong, and Chen Yiyi—interest in Judaism and Judaic culture could be situated within the intellectual tendencies of the 1980s marked by China’s increased openness to the West, a revived desire to examine the country’s own “Judaic inheritance” (typified by the Kaifeng Jews, the refugees of the 1920s etc.) as well as a growing interest in Christianity and the Biblical culture that underpins it, amongst other reasons.

Given the paucity of material and funding within China, not to mention the need to “internationalize” research, it was inevitable that many of these scholars—some of whom were key in the establishment of the country’s first Judaic studies infrastructure (comprising centers for Jewish studies, Judaic studies associations, and Judaic centers,)—turned to Jewish organizations such as the Sino-Judaic Institute, the AJC, the ADL, as well as various Jewish American communities, for networking connections, academic resources, and donations. These exchanges grew exponentially following the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and China in 1992, which saw a more visible involvement on the part of Israeli organizations with more pronounced government backing, and were sustained by the optimism of the early Oslo period, which momentarily lifted taboos about engaging with Israeli and pro-Israeli organizations and groups. It should be emphasized that at this stage, much of these engagements—which typically fell within the realm of religious and cultural exchange with some peripheral discussions on Zionism—were being fostered by outreach on the part of Chinese scholars themselves. Xu Xin, for example, courted significant funding from the American Jewish community (including the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, the Skirball Foundation, and the Rothschild Family Foundation, among many others) to back his many projects concentrated in Nanjing University which range from the Institute of Jewish Studies (later renamed in 2006 the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies), a Judaica library to multiple workshops held for Chinese scholars and students interested in Judaism and Israel. Many of these ties were fostered during his numerous visits to the United States and Israel, dating back to the late 1980s.

By the mid to late 2000s, Jewish American organizations as well as activists, with a new-found appreciation for China as a result of the changing discourses about Israel and Zionism in the West, and facilitated by a pre-existing Judaic Studies infrastructure, as well as a more permissive political atmosphere in China at the end of the decade, began to reproduce their academic advocacy model throughout the country. Naturally, this was spearheaded by the Schusterman Foundation in 2009, which ran two workshops drawing “on the paradigm of the Summer Institute for Israel Studies, a project of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis,” that focused on Israeli cultural issues in Peking University and Shandong University. The workshops attracted a respectable number of experts in the field of Middle East studies. This was followed in 2010 by a four-dayworkshop in Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU). The workshop sought to orient attendees (a group of academics, policymakers, and journalists), with Israeli history, cultural and politics, and more significantly, offered a chance to “rectify misinformation about Israel” with those who Sanford R. Cardin (President of the Schusterman Foundation) identified as having “a direct hand in shaping Chinese policy toward the Middle East.”

These initial initiatives soon gave way for a more active advocacy presence, mainly through the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL), an organization that was formed in 2011 to help “create a broad-based academic framework that will foster long-term alliances between Israel and China.” Although seemingly the brain-child of Israeli Yale University graduate Carice Witte, it appears that SIGNAL was more the byproduct of various collaborative efforts on the part of Jewish advocacy organizations and foundations with a degree of backing from the Israeli government.[3] It embraces on its board of experts a variety of scholars and officials indicative of this, such as the abovementioned Shalom Wald, Pan Guang, Chen Yiyi, Israeli Ambassador to China Amos Nadai, and Aron Shai of Tel-Aviv University, among others.

SIGNAL’s sources of funding are not altogether clear, but its formal booklet lists a number of major foundations that likely provide funding and backing for its projects in China, including the Schusterman Foundation, the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, the Newton and Rochelle Becker Family Foundation, and the Klarman Foundation.[4] The last two are particularly interesting, being involved as they are in a number of advocacy ventures of a questionable nature. The Becker Foundation for example was identified as one of the seven major funders of the so-called “Islamophobia network” in the United States according to a seminal study conducted by the American Center for Progress. The Klarman Foundation, likewise, has funded a slew of advocacy groups such as the David Project, the Israel Project, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, and, according to some reports, has also been implicated in backing illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The support SIGNAL receives from these foundations is coupled with a web of affiliations including Israel-based universities, Israeli and conservative American and think tanks (such as the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute) and advocacy groups like the Lawfare Project, the Israel Project, and the AJC’s Project Interchange.[5] One should also not discount the “ideological” affiliations with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Bernard Lewis, and a slew of former Israeli Ministry of Defense officials and Mossad heads, some of whom espouse “hawkish” and in certain cases “pro-settlement” views (Shabtai Shavit, Efraim Sneh, Moshe Arens, etc.)

Enjoying such ample support, it should be of little surprise that SIGNAL’s efforts in China have yielded, over a relatively short time span, noteworthy results. A core element of SIGNAL’s mission to establish an “academic framework” sympathetic to Israeli interests has been the promotion of ISPs in the country’s major universities. Building on a pre-existing Judaic studies infrastructure and networks, a more permissive political environment, and capitalizing on the fiscal needs of Judaic and Middle Eastern departments, SIGNAL successfully established, between 2011 and 2013, over six ISPs across the country, as well as another five under development, bringing the total to eleven as of the summer of 2013.[6] The organization has paid particular attention to establishing working relationships with Beijing-based universities, which have been, for political reasons, more difficult to penetrate. When Renmin University agreed to host SIGNAL lecturers for a full academic year and expressed interest in eventually establishing an ISP at some point, it was hoped that this would “set an important example for other universities across the country and send a message to China’s leadership that Israel Studies is a valuable academic pursuit.” This strategy appears to have been successful so far, with a number of Beijing-based universities welcoming potential future ISPs on their campuses, although Peking University and Tsinghua University are clearly the intended institutions given their premier status within China.

The development of an ISP for interested Chinese parties is a rather lucrative affair. Not only are new sources of funding opened up in terms of faculty grants provided by American organizations, but new resources, training opportunities, and experiences are also made available to usually underfunded departments. SIGNAL, in co-sponsorship with Bar Illan University and Yad Vesham, runs a training program for lecturers and supervisors in newly created Chinese ISPs. A typical program—funded by Schusterman Scholarships or grants from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation for example—is four months long, beginning with a nineteen-day Holocaust seminar at Yad Vesham where participants are exposed to Jewish historical narratives. This is followed over the next three months with a variety of classes given by Israeli academics—usually in Bar Illan—covering a wide range of topics encompassing “early Jewish settlement during the mandate period to the development of the ‘Sabra’ identity.” In the meantime, SIGNAL organizes trips “from the Negev in the south to the Galilee in the north,” to allow participants “to live the history, culture, sights and sounds of Israel.” Some participants are sent to Brandeis University and are enrolled in seminars and courses connected with Schusterman-backed entities such as the Israel Institute. Upon completing their studies, Chinese scholars “embark on a lecture tour around China to explain their experience in Israel and encourage students and faculty around China to become involved in Israel Studies.”

Towards the goal of consolidating these nascent ISPs, SIGNAL also provides extensive networks and contacts, as well as materials and books on the subject of Israel and Judaic culture donated by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, the American Jewish Committee, as well as a slew of different Jewish American foundations. Providing Chinese language materials is subsumed under these efforts, with SIGNAL commissioning for example translations of Barry Rubin’s work. To reach a wider audience, the organization opted to publish in serialized form many of these translations, as well as introductions to scholarly materials on “Israel and its people to redress misconceptions by offering accurate and easily accessible information” on its website which it dubs as a “Chinese language, on-line academic resource center.” SIGNAL also arranges country-wide lecture tours by Israeli or pro-Israeli pundits and scholars to visit universities with ISPs, including individuals like Saul Singer whose book, the ‘Startup Nation’ dovetails with Israel’s efforts to promote itself as an advanced, high-tech and entrepreneurial state; Harold Rhode, a former US State Department official with ties to the neoconservative moment and Clarion Fund; Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Policy with extensive ties to the Israeli government showcasing his newest book The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam,  the West,  and The  Future  of  the Holy City, and Yaakov Kirschen, a Jerusalem Post cartoonist famous for his work with the Dry Bones series, which draws on racist and Islamophobic depictions.

These activities are strengthened by various conferences, arranged usually in conjunction with such parties as the Bar Illan’s Dangoor Program (funded by the UK-based Exilarch Charitable Foundation), the Lauder School of Government’s Center for Global Strategic Research (GLORIA,) the International Center for Counter Terrorism, Herzliya (IDC) and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving multiple goals. Some of these bring“academics from newly formed Israel Studies Programs around the country as well as university faculty interested in establishing or investigating Israel Studies and Israeli scholars presenting on key fields of study that provide insights into Israel’s society, history, politics, economics, culture, foreign affairs, and diplomacy.” Others, such as the China-Israel Strategy and Security Symposium held in 2011 bring together Chinese policy experts, officials, and former military brass with their Israeli counterparts to discuss issues of more strategic import.

Much of the discourse promoted within these conferences taps into the “narrative of commonalities” that some pro-Israeli activists seek to spread within the context of Chinese academia. These include for instance emphasizing the shared threat posed by “radical Islam” and secession originating from the Muslim populations of these two states (a formulation that echoes to some extent Raphael Israeli’s discourse on Chinese Islam,) the strategic problems associated with hydrocarbon dependency (and thus the potential role Israeli research and technologies could play in helping China “find” alternative sources), and more interestingly, how to deal with “sovereignty” challenges emanating from the West (for example sharing “lawfare” strategies to ward off the questions Tibetan/Uighur independence).

Beyond ISPs, SIGNAL is has also sought to foster strategic dialogue aimed at cultivating “a more accurate understanding of Israel and the region” with China’s most important research institutions and government organs, and specifically those “that provide analyses and policy recommendations to the Party and the government.” Since 2012, SIGNAL has arranged bi-monthly meetings with influential organs like the Institute for Strategic Studies (affiliated with the Party School of the Central Committee), the Chinese Institute for Contemporary (provides policy recommendations to the State Council), and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, amongst many others. These outreach efforts are coupled with expanded interactions with the Chinese media, particularly following the seeming withdrawal of The Israel Project from China in late 2012 as its new leadership called for a retrenchment back in the United States, although it retains an active presenceon the Chinese blogosphere weibo.

The inroads made by pro-Israeli organizations in China are impressive to say the least, and what has been showcased above only reflects the tip of the iceberg with regards to the scope and intensity of the engagement currently taking place, and particularly when compared to similar Arab outreach efforts in the country which are largely limited to the arenas of Arabic language instruction and religious studies. According to my observations, there is a strong receptivity to Israeli discourses and narratives (including its Islamophobic and racists undercurrents about the region) within certain Chinese academic and policymaking circles, which are influenced to a large extent by terrorism concerns both within and outside China. More importantly, the influence and resources offered by pro-Israeli groups is clearly swaying a new generation of Chinese scholars involved in Middle Eastern studies.

Despite these gains however, it should be noted that there are serious challenges that face pro-Israeli advocacy efforts in China. The Chinese political and academic environment, while certainly open to engagement with Israel, is also keen on not offending or compromising its ties with other Middle Eastern and Muslim states with which it has far more significant economic, strategic, and energy ties, not to mention its own Muslim minorities which have, on occasion (communally and as individual scholars), organized themselves in opposition to some of the abovementioned activities. There is a genuine and long-standing sympathy for the Palestinians both at the elite and popular levels. In addition, Israel is still viewed more or less in relation to the United States, imposing in turn certain limitations of its own, and raising suspicions within some circles of the intentions and goals of Israel-affiliated organizations. Furthermore, the political environment which facilitated the growth of this phenomenon in the first place may change dramatically, whether due to government alarm about the motivations of such groups or, more probably, due to a deterioration in Sino-Israeli relations. While it is too early to judge how these advocacy efforts will ultimately re-shape Chinese perceptions on the Middle East, it is clear that “advocacy” in academia has become a constitutive element in the budding Sino-Israeli relationship that should be tracked and examined even further.

[1] Founded in 2002 by the Jewish Agency for Israel as an independent body and policy-clearing house for the Israeli government run by a board of directors chaired by Dennis Ross

[2] The Peking University Hebrew Program was opened in 1985.

[3] Much of this is detailed by John Fishel, a consultant for the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation, during a March 2013 Jewish Funders Network International Conference panel on Sino-Israel relations.

[4] “SIGNAL Booklet,” Accessed: Web. 13 July 2013

[5] Ibid.

[6] It should be pointed out that Nanjing University’s ISP, which was formed in 2012 after a one million dollar endowment from the Diane and Glazer Foundation, is not included. SIGNAL projects:;; Glazer Foundation endowment one million dollar investment in Nanjing:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s