The Jews are not an ethnicity but a people defined by a partnership with the Creator God, in which they are obligated to recognize God’s presence in the details of their daily lives, and empowered to help in the work of creation. Individuals of all races can be adopted into this nation by accepting its responsibilities; in today’s State of Israel one sees hundreds of thousands of black African Jews from Ethiopia, as well as Jews of all ethnicities.
The Jews are not an ethnic nation but a multi-racial family. The Jews were the first people to apply the same laws to the foreigner as to the home-born. Indeed, they are commanded to love the stranger in the same way that they love themselves, because they were strangers in Egypt. It is a particular nation–indeed, a “nation apart”–that nonetheless has a universal purpose for all of humanity. The Jews are “the paragon and exemplar of a nation,” the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote a century ago.
The proof that Jewish nationhood has a universal mission is the founding of the United States of America–the most successful nation in history–by radical Protestants who sought to walk in the footsteps of ancient Israel and drew inspiration from the Jewish Bible and later Jewish commentators.
What the Jews have in common with the Chinese, therefore, is a sense of loyalty to an ancient tradition that defines the obligations of each member of society and puts the family at the center of social life, as opposed to a mere tribal and ethnic loyalties. These are parallel ways of rising above tribalism.
There is an enormous distinction, to be sure: the Jews believe that they were summoned into national existence by the one God, the Maker of Heaven, for whom the universe is like a suit of clothes which he will replace when it wears out (Psalm 92). For that reason they are obligated to bring the presence of God into everyday life, through laws of diet and family purity, prayer, and Sabbath observance.
The religious life of ancient Israel was centered in the Temple at Jerusalem. It was an institution revered in the ancient world. As Dore Gold writes:
The Temple service reflected the universalistic role envisioned for Jerusalem. In dedicating the Temple, King Solomon said that prayers would be offered there by “a foreigner who is not of your people Israel, but rather comes from a distant land.” In Isaiah, God described the Temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples” … sacrifices were regularly offered to promote peace for the entire world. … According to biblical law, non-Jews were in fact permitted to offer sacrifices at the Temple, a practice that became particularly widespread during the Second Temple period (512 BCE to 70 CE ). … It was also common for non-Jewish leaders to send gifts to the Temple throughout the Second Temple period. Darius, King of Persia, and even Augustus Caesar both did this. Undoubtedly because of the Temple, [the Roman historian] Pliny the Elder wrote that Jerusalem was the most famous city in the East.
Christianity resituated the holiness and authority of the Temple in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As Pope Benedict XVI explained, Jesus claimed for himself the qualities of the Temple (Matthew 12:5). After the Romans destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Christian variant of the Jewish idea gained support, and ultimately was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
But it was the standing of Judaism and its universal appeal in the ancient world that made Christianity possible in the first place. That explains why it is more difficult for Christianity to take hold in China today than in the ancient Mediterranean; without the living memory of the Temple at Jerusalem and the unique role of ancient Israel, Christianity becomes an abstraction rather than an extension of Israel’s living presence.
By replacing the Temple with the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity spiritualized Jewish practice. In place of the sacrifices of the Temple, belief in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection became the center of Western religion. Christianity appealed to the tribes of Europe by offering them a place in a “new Israel” of the spirit, while retaining their ethnic identity in the flesh. The tragedy of Western Christianity is that the flesh overcame the spirit, and the tribalism of the European peoples ultimately destroyed the universal ties of Christian culture.
It is instructive to contrast today’s Europe with today’s China. Europe has achieved a limited degree of unification without, however, overcoming national resistance to a unified government. China by contrast contains fifty-five distinct ethnic minorities and numerous spoken languages within a single political system. Despite the occasional eruption of separatist tendencies, China is in little danger of reverting to a loose confederation of ethnicities.
For all its great accomplishments, the European project of the past thousand years has failed. The greatest achievement of the West is the creation of the United States of America, which selected immigrants from all nations in a new, non-ethnic polity defined by a Constitution inspired to a great extent by ancient Israel.
When Christianity failed to overcome the residual tribalism of the West, its universalizing message was replaced by relativism. The reigning dogma in the secular West now states that every ethnicity is entitled to its own “narrative” and that all cultures are equally valid in their own terms. Relativism refuses to consider the obvious fact that some cultures succeed while others fail miserably; it insists on the absolute right of self-definition and self-termination for every tribe.
This post-Christian ideology motivates many attacks on China in the West, and justifies Western support for breakaway movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other Chinese provinces. The same ideology justifies attacks on the State of Israel. Liberal relativists argue that Palestinian Arabs have the right to their own self-defining narrative, which regards the State of Israel as an alien intrusion in the Middle East-despite the thousands of years of Jewish history and the unbroken Jewish presence in the country over those thousands of years. The relativists demand that Israel abandon its character as a Jewish State, or at least give up so much land as to become indefensible.
The State of Israel was founded in one of the many population exchanges that occurred after World War II: about 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries, including the ancient community of Iraq that predated the Arabs, and about 700,000 Arab refugees left the State of Israel. Israel integrated the expelled Jews but the Arab countries refused to integrate the expelled Arabs, maintaining them instead as a permanent “refugee” population in token of their refusal to accept the historical rights of the Jewish people.
The Arab countries began three wars of aggression against Israel-in 1947, 1967, and 1973–but failed each time. In 1967, Israel retook the eastern half of its capital Jerusalem, the site of the ancient Temple. Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since the middle of the 19th century, and a continuous Jewish presence–with brief interruptions after expulsions by Roman and Christian conquerors–for more than 3,000 years.
The same perverse logic that denies Israel the right to live in its ancient homeland in secure borders with its ancient capital city is used to condemn China’s sovereignty over Xinjiang and Tibet, among other places. The supposed right of self-determination for “Uyghur culture” or “Tibetan culture” is opposed to China’s historic sovereignty over those territories. If this argument were extended to its logical conclusion, the great accomplishment of Chinese civilization–its genius for integrating many ethnicities into a unifying culture–is a wicked form of imperial impression.
This begs the question: why are Western liberals so obsessed with the putative right of the Palestinian Arabs to their own “narrative”? The answer, I believe, is that the Palestinian issue is the thin end of the wedge. In the West, Israel represents the ideal of a civilization that rises above ethnicity. The historic continuity of the Jewish people is the foundation for Christianity, which has faded as a universalizing civilization in Europe.
If Israel’s historic rights to its ancient homeland are compromised, and if Israel can be portrayed as an imperial aggressor that violates the self-definition of ethnic minorities, relativism will triumph over the principle of unifying civilization. Israel has enormous symbolic importance for the West.
Founded just 65 years ago, the modern Jewish state has become a pocket superpower in technology, business and the arts, as well as the strongest and most stable state in the Middle East. It is also the only industrial country with a fertility rate far above replacement. Not just in the abstract, but in its concrete manifestation in the modern State of Israel, Jewish nationhood remains “a paragon and exemplar of a nation.”
The ambitions of liberal relativism extend far beyond the Middle East. It is much easier to drive the thin end of the wedge into Israel, a nation of just 8 million people, than into China, a world power of 1.4 billion people. Precisely the same reasoning that proposes to carve up the State of Israel justifies ethnic separatism in China.
It is important to emphasize that this has nothing to do with the question of democracy in China. The Western liberals who support Tibetan separatism, for example, do not argue that Tibetans should have the right to vote in Chinese elections: they argue that Tibetans should have the right to restore the extremely undemocratic feudal system that prevailed before Tibet was integrated into China.
The instinctive affinity that Chinese feel for the Jewish people, therefore, is not a matter of happenstance. Nor is the fact that Chinese civilization and Jewish civilization have longer continuity than any other modes of human existence. Despite their great differences, they share a common purpose, to transcend tribalism through a unifying civilization. It should be no surprise that they have enemies in common.