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Common Traits Bind Jews and Chinese

January 11th, 2014 - 5:21 pm

Common traits bind Jews and Chinese
By Spengler

(Cross-posted from Asia Times Online)

JERUSALEM – The Chinese are connoisseurs of civilization. For thousands of years they have absorbed ethnicities into their own culture, eliminating on occasion tribes that proved too troublesome. They have watched other civilizations come and go; they have seen their younger neighbors adopt parts of their culture and then try to assert their superiority, and ultimately fail. They are the last people on earth to accept the liberal Western dogma that every culture is valid within its own terms of reference, for they have seen too many civilizations fail of their own flaws.

There is no greater compliment to any culture than to be admired
by Chinese, who with some justification regard their civilization as the world’s most ancient and, in the long run, most successful. The high regard that the Chinese have for Jews should be a source of pride to the latter. In fact, it is very pleasant indeed for a Jew to spend time in China. The sad history of Jew-hatred has left scars on every European nation, but it is entirely absent in the world’s largest country. On the contrary, to the extent that Chinese people know something of the Jews, their response to us is instinctively sympathetic.

“I am always surprised by the expressions of affection that the Chinese show for the Jews. Both cultures, the Chinese emphasize, share respect for family, learning and, yes, money,” wrote the journalist Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore last year. ‘”Most Chinese will think Jews are smart, clever or good at making money, and that they have achieved a great deal,’ Professor Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University (one of over half a dozen centers in China dedicated to studying Judaism) told me last week,” she wrote. “This logic — that the Jews are admired for their success despite their small numbers and historical oppression — has also led to a burgeoning industry of self-help books that use Jewish culture and the Talmud to preach business tips.”

Family, learning, respect for tradition, business acumen: these are Jewish traits that the Chinese also consider to be their virtues. All this is true as far as it goes. One might also mention that China never has had reason to view the Jews as competitors for legitimacy.

Christianity began as a Jewish sect and has vacillated between the claim that is has superseded Judaism and the view that it is a daughter religion that should honor its parent. Islam claims that Jews and Christians falsified the revelations given to them and that their scriptures are a perversion of God’s true message, which Mohammed restored to its original integrity. But by no stretch of the imagination could China view the Jews as a threat to the legitimacy of its civilization.

The Chinese, in short, have no reasons to dislike or fear the Jews, and a number of reasons to admire them simply because Jews display traits that Chinese admire among themselves. A Jew visiting China, though, senses an affinity with Chinese people, more than can be explained by the commonality of traits. There is a common attitude towards life, and especially toward adversity.

A Chinese friend explained it to me this way: If you suffer a setback, even if through no fault of your own, and even if through the malicious acts of malevolent people, you must not feel sorry for yourself or blame others for your troubles. It is you who must take responsibility for overcoming them. You are required to redouble your efforts and work all the harder. Perseverance in the face of adversity is something Jews understand very well. Through two millennia of exile in the West, Jews maintained an autonomous high culture while succeeding at the highest level within Western culture, often despite persecution.

Civilizations fail when they become despondent, when they lose confidence in their history and their future, when their citizens cease to feel pride in and draw inspiration from their culture. Somehow, for thousands of years, Jews and Chinese kept their confidence in their civilization and preserved it through war and foreign conquest. Surely that helps explain their present success. The confidence to redouble one’s efforts in the face of adversity, even malevolence, cannot be explained by simple stubbornness. The grit required to excel even when the game is rigged against you is not only a cultural trait, but the trait of a culture, that is, a personal characteristic that draws on a culture’s self-confidence.

It may seem odd to compare the largest of peoples with one of the world’s smallest, but Chinese and Jews have something in common that helps explain their success and longevity. That is the ability to rise above ethnic conflicts.

Tribal warfare is the bane of human society. During the 40,000 years before the dawn of civilization, some anthropologists estimate, two-fifths of males who survived infancy died in warfare. The great empires of the Near East and the West failed because they enslaved the peoples they conquered rather than integrate them. European Christianity offered a compromise: the ethnicities that occupied Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire would join a universal Church in the spirit, but keep their ethnic nature in the flesh. Ultimately the flesh overwhelmed the spirit, and ethnocentric nationalism provoked the terrible wars of the 20th century.

Chinese civilization offered a different model: it integrated innumerable ethnic minorities into a unified culture centered on a written language and literary tradition, and offered the opportunity for advancement to everyone who came under the umbrella of this culture. Unlike Rome, it did not enslave subject populations to work giant estates, but emphasized the extended family as the fundamental unit of society.

Unlike Christianity, where the unifying language of Europe (Latin) was understood by a tiny elite, Chinese culture propagated a unifying written language. Literacy in ancient China was extremely high in comparison to the ancient and medieval West, between 20% and 30% by most estimates. China still has 55 ethnic minorities and a wide variety of spoken languages. The only people with a higher literacy rate in the ancient world were the Jews, who began a program of compulsory universal education during the 1st century BCE.

What distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the ancient world west of the Indus River? Uniquely, the ancient Hebrews believed that their nation was defined not by ethnicity and geographic origin but rather by a code of practice given by divine mandate.

Jewish Scripture describes the founding father of the Jewish people, Abraham, as a wandering Babylonian summoned by the single Creator God to leave his homeland and come to a land–the present-day Israel–where his descendants would multiply and endure forever. The generation of his great-grandchildren migrated to Egypt, and their descendants were enslaved. God’s intervention freed the Hebrews from slavery, and gave them the Torah (“teachings”) at Mount Sinai, instructing them to conquer the future Land of Israel.

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Turkey is coming apart. The Islamist coalition that crushed the secular military and political establishment–between Tayip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and the Islamist movement around Fethullah Gulen–has cracked. The Gulenists, who predominate in the security forces, have arrested the sons of top government ministers for helping Iran to launder money and circumvent sanctions, and ten members of Erdogan’s cabinet have resigned. Turkey’s currency is in free fall, and that’s just the beginning of the country’s troubles: about two-fifths of corporate debt is in foreign currencies, so the cost of servicing it jumps whenever the Turkish lira declines. Turkish stocks have crashed (and were down another 5% in dollar terms in early trading Friday). As the charts below illustrate, so much for Turkey’s miracle economy.

Two years ago I predicted a Turkish economic crash. Erdogan’s much-vaunted economic miracle stemmed mainly from vast credit expansion to fuel an import boom, leaving the country with a current account deficit of 7 % of GDP (about the same as Greece before it went bankrupt) and a mushrooming pile of short-term foreign debt. The Gulf states kept financing Erdogan’s import bill, evidently because they wanted to keep a Sunni power in business as a counterweight to Iran; perhaps they have tired of Turkey’s double-dealing with the Persians. And credulous investors kept piling into Turkish stocks.

I reiterated my warning that Turkey would unravel at regular intervals, for example here.

No more. Turkey is a mediocre economy at best with a poorly educated workforce, no high-tech capacity, and shrinking markets in depressed Europe and the unstable Arab world. Its future might well be as an economic tributary of China, as the “New Silk Road” extends high-speed rail lines to the Bosporus.

For the past ten years we have heard ad nauseum about the “Turkish model” of “Muslim democracy.” The George W. Bush administration courted Erdogan even before he became prime minister, and Obama went out of his way to make Erdogan his principal pal in foreign policy. I have been ridiculing this notion for years, for example in this 2010 essay for Tablet.

The whole notion was flawed from top to bottom. Turkey was not in line to become an economic power of any kind: it lacked the people and skills to do anything better than medium-tech manufacturing. Its Islamists never were democrats. Worst of all, its demographics are as bad as Europe’s. Ethnic Turks have a fertility rate close to 1.5 children per family, while the Kurdish minority is having 4 children per family. Within a generation half of Turkey’s young men will come from families where Kurdish is the first language.

Chart forUSD/TRY (TRY=X)

Chart foriShares MSCI Turkey (TUR)

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It’s About the Settlements, Stupid

December 17th, 2013 - 8:33 am

Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, the misnamed occupied territories, are not the obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They are the acid test of peace. To argue that peace is conceivable unless the bulk of the settlements remain in place constitutes stupidity or hypocrisy. Leave aside the issue of whether Jews have the right to live in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Ignore the fact that the settlers live overwhelmingly on what was waste land and turned into gardens, vineyards, and industries which have uplifted the lives of Palestinian Arabs more than all the aid that has passed through (or rather stuck to) the fingers of the kleptocrats of the PA. Leave aside also Israel’s requirement for defensible borders: that is a critical issue but not identical to the continued presence of settlements.

Accepting the settlements is the sine qua non of any viable peace agreement. It does Israel no good to defend Israel’s right to exist but to condemn the settlers, as does Alan Dershowitz, not to mention the leaders of liberal Jewish denominations.

I believe in land for peace. That is a tautology: In territorial disputes the two main variables always are land and peace. But that implies more land for more peace and less land for less peace. The Palestinian Arabs had an opportunity to accept an Israeli state on just 5,500 square miles of land in 1947, and refused to do so. The armistice lines of 1948 left Israel with 8,550 square miles, and the Arab side refused to accept that. In 1967 Israel took an additional 5,628 square miles of land in dispute under international law; Jordan does not claim it, and no legal Arab authority exists to claim it. It is not “illegally occupied.” It has never been adjudicated by a competent authority.

To demand the 1948 armistice lines (the so-called 1967 borders) is to refuse any penalty for refusing to make peace in the past. That is the same as refusing any peace at all. Wars end when one side accepts defeat, and abandons the hope of restoring the status quo ante by force of arms. 1947 was a catastrophe (“Nakba”) for the Palestinian Arabs, to be sure, but it was a catastrophe of their own making; until they accept at least some degree of responsibility for the catastrophe, they will not be reconciled to any peace agreement. That is precisely what Palestine’s negotiator Saeb Erekat meant when he eschewed any recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state because “I cannot change my narrative.” The “narrative” is that the Jews are an alien intrusion into the Muslim Middle East and eventually must be eliminated by one means or another.

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The Dead’s Envy for the Living

November 26th, 2013 - 4:24 am


Many commentators, most eloquently Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, draw a parallel between the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 and the appeasement of Iran at Geneva. There is another, more chilling parallel: Iran’s motive for proposing to annihilate the Jewish State is the same as Hitler’s, and the world’s indifference to the prospect of another Holocaust is no different today than it was in 1938. It is the dead’s envy for the living.

Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying. Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s. Iran’s present youth bulge will turn into an elderly dependent problem worse than Europe’s in the next generation and the country will collapse. That is why war is likely, if not entirely inevitable.

Iran’s Elderly Dependent Ratio

Year Elderly Dependent Ratio
2010 7.4
2015 8.8
2020 10.5
2025 12.8
2030 15.7
2035 18.8
2040 22.7
2045 28.4
2050 34
2055 37.5
2060 39.2

Source: UN “Low Variant”

The table above is drawn from United Nations projections. It probably underestimates Iran’s predicament: the UN’s “low variant” puts the country’s total fertility rate at 1.9 children as of 2015, but it already has fallen to just 1.6. This means in simple arithmetic that a generation hence, there will be two elderly dependents for every three workers, compared to 7 elderly dependents for every 93 workers today. That is a death sentence for a poor country, and at this point it is virtually irreversible.

As the United States Institute of Peace wrote in its April 2013 “Iran Primer”:

“Iran’s low fertility rate has produced a rapidly aging population, according to a new U.N. report. The rate has declined from 2.2 births per woman in 2000 to 1.6 in 2012. This has pushed the median age of Iranians to 27.1 years in 2010, up from 20.8 years in 2000. The median age could reach 40 years by 2030, according to the U.N. Population Division. An elderly and dependent population may heavily tax Iran’s public health infrastructure and social security network.”

In 2005 and 2006, I was the first Western analyst to draw strategic conclusions from this trend, the steepest decline in fertility in the history of the world. Iran must break out and establish a Shiite zone of power, or it will break down.

Iran’s theocracy displays the same apocalyptic panic about its demographic future that Hitler expressed about the supposed decline of the so-called Aryan race. Unlike Hitler, whose racial paranoia ran wild, Iran’s presentiment of national death is well founded on the facts. That is not to understate Iran’s paranoia. In 2013 Iran’s vice president alleged that Jews ran the international drug trade. In a June 2013 Facebook post earlier this year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei  wrote, “U.S. President is being elected [sic] only from two parties while Zionist regime is controlling everything from behind the scenes.” That captions a cartoon showing fat men with moneybags for heads under a Star of David.  Iranian officials routinely threaten to “annihilate the Zionist regime.”

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The Cost of America’s Abdication of Power

November 21st, 2013 - 3:07 pm

From today’s Algemeiner:

On a state visit to Moscow Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to assert himself over U.S. President Barack Obama as the main peacekeeper in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, just as Putin did over the chemical weapons in Syria, according to a report on Thursday in Russia’s Kommersant that cited unnamed diplomatic sources.

Kommersant said the deal on the table today from the world powers in Geneva stipulates a six-month suspension of work on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in exchange for releasing $3 billion of frozen assets in international banks and a reduction in sanctions that would provide Tehran with an another $10 billion.

The newspaper cited a source close to the Israeli government as saying, “Netanyahu understands that the deal, insisted on by the United States, will be concluded,” and he sees no way to influence Washington any further in the matter.

“The looming agreement with Iran would have been acceptable two years ago, but not now,” a source close to Netanyahu told Kommersant. “Sometimes a bad agreement is worse than none. North Korea, for example, turned out to acquire nuclear weapons within a month after a written contract” was signed, saying that they wouldn’t.

Its sources said Netanyahu’s goal in the visit to Moscow was to convince the Russian leadership to achieve the maximum possible from Tehran with real concessions formalized in a binding agreement.

“We hope that Russia, as a key member of the negotiating process in Geneva, will be able to change the situation,” the Israeli diplomatic source said, adding that the key concession would be to get tougher control over Iranian nuclear facilities and opportunities to peer within the “secrets of the enterprise.”Iran has said it would not allow full transparency in terms of inspections to its nuclear facilities.

Benny Briskin, director of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) and an adviser to Netanyahu for a decade, told Kommersant, ”Moscow has well-developed links with Iran, as well as economic instruments that remain, despite international sanctions.”


All of this and more could have been anticipated years ago, as I’ll explain on the next page.

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Best Obama Takedown Ever

November 15th, 2013 - 12:53 am

A senior statesman of an Asian government qualified Barack Obama as “the NGO president” in private conversation. Just thought I’d share.

Putin Gets It and We Don’t

November 14th, 2013 - 5:35 pm

Middle East politics amounts to managing the decline of a failed culture. Nothing expresses Arab failure more vividly than Egypt, a banana republic without the bananas, now living on a $14 billion or so annual subsidy from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. With 70% of its population living in agricultural areas, it imports half its food, and would starve if not for the Saudi check. ‘

Egypt is beyond the point of no return economically, and American foreign policy is beyond the point of no return intellectually. Americans of both parties–Obama and Kerry on one side, and Sens. McCain and Graham along with the Weekly Standard on the other–believed that by waving the magic wand of democracy over this cataclysmically failed state, all would be well. I characterized this consensus as “Dumb and Dumber” earlier this year.

The outcome, of course, is that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov turned up in Cairo this week to hear his Egyptian counterpart declare that America’s erstwhile Arab ally wants to restore Russian-Egyptian relations to their level during the Soviet era–when Egypt was an enemy. As the Jerusalem Post summed up the mess:

The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the world’s single superpower with the most populous Arab state. The Russian ministerial visits were preceded by a visit by the chief of Russian intelligence and by Russian naval vessels.

More important, the visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu involve a major sale to Egypt of sophisticated Russian military hardware – clearly a counter move to the American halting of weapons supplies.

The Egyptians are essentially saying that they can shop elsewhere and not have to shell out cash. According to reliable reports, another exasperated American ally, Saudi Arabia, is footing the bill for this transaction to the tune of $4b. The Russians may receive additional compensation in the form of access for their navy to port facilities on the Mediterranean.

Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.

Vladimir Putin gets it, and we don’t. He backs the Assad regime in Syria against Saudi-supported rebels. He is cracking down ruthlessly on Muslim terrorists in the Russian Caucasus, using Stalin-era forms of collective punishment. Nonetheless Riyadh is footing a $4 billion bill for Egypt to buy Russian arms.

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The London Economist observes Remembrance Day under the headline, “Avoidable brutality,” citing a new book by Margaret MacMillan claiming that the whole horrible mess was the result of blunders. That also is the view of Sir John Keegan, who in his history of the First World War calls it a “tragic and unnecessary conflict.”

That is a contradiction in terms, for “tragic” implies necessity. MacMillan and Keegan, in my view, offer in place of hard analysis a Utopian rescue fantasy. The same Utopian view infects Western policy towards Iran. If only reasonable men could sit down and split the differences, there would be nothing to fight about. I do not believe this is always, or even often, the case. In the case of Iran, the West encounters a dying civilization with a death wish: Iran’s fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per female in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 at the moment, the fastest demographic decline ever recorded, which ensures societal collapse at the horizon of one generation. Iran is like a hostage-taking bank robber with a brain tumor. It has little to lose and can only be dissuaded from building nuclear weapons by force.

The flaws in Europe were fundamental, not arbitrary: Russia as an empire depended on Poland and other industrialized Eastern provinces for its tax base. The pull of the German cultural-economic sphere constantly threatened to dislodge the Eastern part of the Russian Empire from the center, which would have caused its economic collapse. That is why Russia sponsored pan-Slavic movements including the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. I listed the reasons for war some years ago (in an essay titled “In praise of preemptive war”) as follows:

1. With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 unless it fought soon.
2. Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
3. Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia.
4. Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, the Baltic states and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
5. England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.

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New York Is Just Fine — De Blasio Is Broken

November 7th, 2013 - 5:16 pm

New York has always been a city for strivers, where hard work and wit led to success. Contrary to Mayor-elect de Blasio’s whining about the gap between rich and poor and the high cost of housing and the humiliation of young black and Hispanic men by the police, the city is still doing just what it is supposed to do. The proof is the success of Asian immigrants.

There has been considerable hand-wringing during the past few years about “lack of diversity” in the eight public high schools that require written exams. Asians are 14% of the public school population, but 50% of the elite high school population (the same proportion applies to Hunter College’s free public high school). By and large the Asian entrants are the children of working-class immigrants who pay extra tuition to prepare them for the entrance exams.

The NAACP has filed a complaint against the school system demanding racial quotas. The same concern for those “left behind” motivated the open admissions program in the City University system in 1969, which nearly ruined the system until CUNY found a way to shunt the underperformers into the community college system. (See chart at bottom of page.)

Asian immigrants are changing the face of New York, and for the better. My own solidly middle-class neighborhood in Manhattan is slowly becoming Asian, as the successful children of the last generation of Asian immigrants reach the income levels to buy Manhattan apartments–not the plutocrats’ pads on Park Avenue to the west of my corner of the island, but still within walking distance of many of the city’s best-known private schools. A few years before, Russians began moving in to our neighborhood from Brooklyn. Their kids also are hugely overrepresented in the city’s elite high schools.

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Unforgivable Fiddler

November 5th, 2013 - 7:05 pm


Pop culture critic Terry Teachout has a piece at Commentary magazine on the half-century anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s behind the paywall, so I won’t cite it. Fiddler disgusts me, not because of the cheesy faux-Klezmer score, but because it misrepresents Sholom Aleichem’s character Tevye as a lovable schlemihl, a Stetl variant of Seinfeld or Sergeant Bilko. The original stories have their comic moments, but they are not overall cheerful (one of Tevye’s daughters drowns herself, an incident excised from the Broadway version, for example). But the high point of the Tevye stories occurs when Tevye faces down a mob of Ukrainian pogromists who have come to burn down his house. At risk to his life, and with high nobility, Tevye demands that the mob consider whether there is a God in Heaven who judges us, and asks whether they believe that God would look favorably on their actions. He speaks with eloquence and desperate courage and persuades the mob to disperse.

Tevye may be an ordinary Jew, but he is capable of heroism inspired by deep faith. Sholom Aleichem may not have been a great writer, but this is a great scene. (The movie version has Tevye telling the Czarist official who has delivered the order expelling Jews from the district that he still owns his land for three days, demanding that the official get off it — a cheap shot).

The Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has taken Fiddler to task for distorting the humor of the original. There are other things to object to (for example Tevye’s anachronistic tolerance of his daughter’s intermarriage: the dramatic issue in the original is whether Tevye will forgive his daughter after she abandons her Gentile husband). But the recasting of Tevye as a clown is unforgivable.

“Normality is overrated,” I wrote some years ago. “The normal condition of the nations of the world is to vanish beyond memory. If you want to remain an exception, you have to be a hero.” Tevye was a hero. Most American Jews, by contrast, want to be normal. That’s why non-Orthodox American Jews are disappearing.


Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle; visit for additional comments and discussion