China and the Jews
Peter Berton (USC professor emeritus) sheds light on history of Jews in China
When I tell people that I grew up in China, people say, "Who did you run away from?"
This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.
By Chris Eldredge
YEARS AGO when a colleague asked Peter Berton, a professor emeritus of international relations at USC, to look over a few papers on Judaism in China, Berton thought to himself, "What do I know about these topics? This is not my field."
But since then, Berton said he has become drawn to the complex issue of China and the Jews.
As part of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies speaker series, Berton spoke to approximately 30 professors, students and members of the public at UCLA on Thursday.
He discussed the history of Jews in China and his personal experience growing up Jewish in China's northeastern city of Harbin.
"I thought the speech was very accessible and didn't get into anything too abstract or theoretical," said fourth-year political science student Brian Zhang.
"Since he grew up in Harbin, he personalized what a typical Jewish immigrant experience was like."
Jews have been in China for over 1,000 years, and there have been four main waves of Jewish immigration, Berton said.
He said Jews first immigrated as traders along the Silk Road, then as British subjects, Russian immigrants and Holocaust refugees.
Berton said while some Jews immigrated to China to escape anti-Semitism, his family was part of the third wave of immigration and was not fleeing when they moved in the 1920s.
"When I tell people that I grew up in China, people say, ‘Who did you run away from?'" Berton said.
"And I say, ‘I didn't run away from anything. My father just saw opportunity.'"
A discussion following the speech was led by Otto Schnepp, a professor emeritus of chemistry at USC, who lived in Shanghai from 1939 to 1948 and was a counselor for science and technology at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 1980 to 1982.
Schnepp spoke about how conditions deteriorated for Jews living in China during World War II.
He said he was struck by how the Japanese, who controlled Manchuria, were willing to relocate Jews into concentrated areas. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 1941 the Japanese government deported Jews to Shanghai, which Japan controlled.
Berton also explained how a clandestine relationship developed between China and Israel so that China could gain access to spare parts for Soviet army equipment after the Sino-Soviet conflict cut off China's relations with the USSR.
According to the UCLA Asia Institute, Israel resold weapons it had taken from defeated Arab armies.
China established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.
John E. Wills Jr., a professor emeritus of history at USC, said Berton and Schnepp's personal experiences in China contributed to the speech in an extremely valuable way.
"(The speech) was wonderful. This was living history. You are hearing the moments of ‘I was there.' That's what the journalist is interested in and that's what the anthropologist is interested in," he said.
Richard Gunde, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, also said he believes Berton's experience has important implications.
"It's a multinational world right now and we think that what's happening to us is all new, but it's not all new. Understanding the history helps us to perhaps better understand the world which we live in today," he said.
* * *
Peter Berton is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at USC and Emeritus, New Center for Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles. He was a resident of Harbin from 1928 to 1941.
Otto Schnepp is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at USC. He was Counselor for Science and Technology, U.S. Embassy in Beijing, 1980-82, and a former director of the USC East Asian Studies Center, 1994-2000. Professor Schnepp was a resident of Shanghai from 1939 to 1948.
Published: Friday, February 23, 2007