by Sara Cohen, Jewish Press Intern
Walking the cobblestone, Chinese lantern-lined paths of Jiufen Old Street in Taipei, I brushed past a man sporting a familiar blue insignia on his white T-shirt. Shocked, I spun instantly around, trying to decipher the combination of ancient letters on the man’s back before he disappeared into the throng of people.
“Is he…Jewish?” I asked Nina, my host student during the three-week Cultural Exchange Program in which I was participating. I couldn’t imagine that this man could be part of the 0.002% of Jews living on the island nation, a statistic composed nearly entirely of Western immigrants.
Nina followed my gaze and laughed. “No, no,” she said. “I think he just like the symbol. Many Taiwanese people think it cool.”
Surprisingly, this view of Judaism as “cool” is, in fact, very prevalent throughout Asia. Just as many Westerners take interest in Buddhist or Taoist principles and adapt some of these practices into their own lives, residents of Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea feel the same spiritual curiosity towards Judaism.
Yet, according to the ADL Global 100, a recent survey measuring the extent of common anti-Semitic stereotypes in over 102 countries, parts of Asia harbor some significant prejudices towards Jews. Though Japan and China yielded respectively 23% and 20% anti-Semitism indices, South Korea produced an alarming 53%.
Are South Koreans really that narrow-minded? Or, perhaps, do they view Jews in a way not capable of being expressed in a mere 11-question survey?
The answer to this conundrum came to me during a conversation with Jungbin “Jessy” Kim, a Korean girl I met at the Taiwan Exchange Camp. “In Korea, we think it’s a common sense: Jews are successful, and we think that is because of your education…We are really curious about the way you educate the students.” Jessy then told me of the books she occasionally spots in convenience stores detailing methods of strict Jewish parenting, or the TV program she watched on a Korean network explaining the study habits of a Jewish student at Harvard.
After conducting some research on the topic, I found that Koreans, along with Chinese and Japanese citizens, see ties between their individual countries’ histories and that of the Jews. Most importantly, though, they see a correlation between the primeval ethic systems practiced throughout Asia and the traditional values to which Jews adhere. Aware of the achievements of Jews in America, Israel and other countries, Asians credit the child-rearing tactics and early schooling of Jewish children as the reason for their apparent success later in life. In an attempt to ensure the same feats for their own children, they have begun emulating practices common in Jewish households.
An instance of this came to light more than three years ago, when Ma Young-Sam, an ambassador to Israel, announced that study of the Talmud had been implemented into the curriculum of all elementary students in South Korea. Schoolchildren now refer to the age-old book of Jewish teachings as “The Light of Knowledge,” and it has remained a national bestseller for a number of years.
With all these factors in mind, the 53% index level of anti-Semitism in South Korea may still cause distress for some people. Many of the survey questions, such as, “Jews have too much control over the global media,” or, “Jews have too much power in the business world,” seem to be clearly derogatory. Nevertheless, they may have been unknowingly altered in meaning when translated to Korean, so that the subjects would perceive the statements as, “Jews have control over the global media,” or, “Jews have power in the business world.” In Korea, along with in Japan and China, most people would view these not as negative stereotypes, but as positive descriptions.
In addition, many Asians have had limited if any exposure to Jews and the stereotypes that accompany them. When asked to react to these prejudices, their response either stems from what is portrayed in global media, or it is the result of random guessing. Meanwhile, in Oceania, the continent with the lowest anti-Semitism index level of 14% (almost half of the worldwide average), Jews compose a relatively significant part of the religious population. In the country of Australia, for example, .5% of the population identifies as Jewish, while in Japan, China, and South Korea, Jews represent less than .01%. The experience that Australians and New Zealanders have with anti-Semitic notions gives them the upper hand in knowing to avoid certain answers on the ADL Global 100.
Therefore, despite the disconcerting numbers, Asians are more likely to model themselves on Jews than to target them. Considering the remarkable success of people of Asian nationality, Jews should take this as an extraordinary compliment.