OPINION: We should learn from China’s historical treatment of Jews

OPINION: We should learn from China’s historical treatment of Jews

David Sassoon and his sons
David Sassoon and his sons

by Dr Maisie J Meyer

Dr Maisie J Meyer
Dr Maisie J Meyer

The Chinese State Visit to the UK is potentially very important for Britain and the British economy however, given the very worrying situation in Israel it would seem to be a low priority for the Jewish community.

It may be of interest that today’s flourishing Chinese economy is founded on significant input from the Jewish merchants who began settling in the Treaty Port of Shanghai in the mid 19th century.  The names of Hardoon, Kadoorie and Sassoon were emblazoned over the business and social life of East Asia for a century. Their unparalleled level of commercial achievement had animpact on the economy.

The grandeur and scale of the edifices they constructed and their palatial homes developed the city into one of the largest in the world. Long after their tombstones and cemeteries have vanished, these buildings are still standing as a lasting monument to their achievements and the vibrancy of their community.

Under the People’s Republic of China, the Kadoorie family’s stately home, Marble Hall, has been turned into a Children’s Palace, where pupils are trained in arts.

Sir Michael Kadoorie’s landmark deluxe hotel, The Peninsula Shanghai, reopened in March 2010. Its close proximity to Sir Victor Sassoon’s iconic Cathay Hotel (now Fairmont), constructed in 1929, leaves an impression of the enduring presence of the contribution of the Baghdadi Jewish Community to the growth of the metropolis during the century of their sojourn there.

David Sassoon and his sons
David Sassoon and his sons

The Chinese government awarded Baghdadi philanthropists, most conspicuously, Silas Aaron Hardoon, prestigious awards for their generous contributions to Chinese medical, educational and communal causes.

The schools they donated had an impact in the wider Chinese society. Hardoon spent huge sums promoting Chinese technology and preserving China’s rich cultural heritage.

Looking at the Baghdadi Jewish Community is interesting to note how in the midst of a host of other nationalities they maintained their own customs and traditions.

Benefactors donated two synagogues and cemeteries to preserve the Babylonian heritage of the community. It was a very Orthodox community, clannish and parochial, and retained its culture and its own social functions.

Several youngsters studied sheḥita realising that they would have to take over this role from the older generation.

However, those who abandoned their traditions were still welcomed on the rare occasions they attended religious services.

The community was by no means homogeneous: there was social stratification generally based on family background and wealth.

However, there was a great deal of social mobility: many poor immigrants went on to become wealthy.

Baghdadi Jewish identity was reinforced by close commercial ties, kinship, and endogamy. Britain also played an important part in this story.

Pragmatically, or perhaps opportunistically Shanghai’s Jews aligned themselves with what was the all-powerful Imperial Britain.

They had an extraordinarily cosmopolitan outlook and naturally identified with the British with whom they shared the privileged status of foreign nationals in Shanghai.

They were convinced that their prosperity correlated to British rule and were ardently patriotic to the royal family.

Their slavish Anglicisation and conviction that everything British was worthy of emulation moulded the very structure of their lives.

Some 340 Shanghai Baghdadis were British subjects because they were born in British India, or settled over a long period in a British possession, or worked in British firms in Shanghai.

This accorded them valuable economic, political, legal and social privileges, but British nationality and Anglicisation did not guarantee full acceptance by the class-conscious, and somewhat anti-Semitic British society.

In stark contrast to present-day China’s very troubling human rights record, it is worth noting that during the war China was one of the very few countries where Jewish refugees from Central European escaping Nazi persecution found a safe haven.

The 10 square miles of the Foreign Concession of Shanghai became a refuge for them, and hosted the now famous Mir Yeshiva.

It is indeed remarkable that three diverse Jewish communities resided in Shanghai in the mid-twentieth century: 1,000 Baghdadi Jews, some 7,000 refugees from Czarist persecution and about 10,000 refugees from Nazi Europe, and host communities showed exceptional generosity, both from an individual and communal basis, in absorbing and supporting the refugees.

So as we peruse through the daily paper and read articles ranging from state visits to the refugee crisis, we should learn from our forbearers and appreciate that we have a part to play so as to ensure we leave a lasting legacy to the next generation.

Dr Maisie J Meyer was awarded a PhD from the London School of Economics. Her publications include From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai and Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections.



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