One Life Is the Whole World

One Life Is the Whole World

Israel fascinates China. I spent most of last week in Israel with a group of Chinese experts visiting under the auspices of SIGNAL, an Israeli non-profit that sponsors dialogue with China. I’ve served on SIGNAL’s Board of Advisers for the past five years and visited China several times in the company of prominent Israeli experts. This year’s discussion was tense. As SIGNAL’s executive director Carice Witte told Israel HaYom, “Our conference on Israel’s China policy indicates that small and medium countries like Israel, Germany and South Korea, with representatives at the events are all feeling the challenge of the U.S. – China rivalry. At the same time, there is a consensus among Israelis that if compelled to decide, it is no contest — the US is Israel’s ally,”

Why do 7 million Israeli Jews command the attention of representatives of 1.4 billion Chinese? More than anything, Jewish creativity fascinates the world’s oldest and largest civilization. Jews earned one in five Nobel Prizes, although they comprise less than one five-hundredth of the world population. Not a single Nobel Prize in the sciences has been awarded to a Mainland Chinese, except for a medicine award to a practitioner of Chinese traditional healing. (Eight scientists of Chinese descent have won the prize, but for work done in North America).

What makes the Jews so creative, my Chinese interlocutors wanted to know. I’m not sure I can explain it, I told them, but I can show you

After the conference we went to Jerusalem, and our first stop was Yad Vashem, the great Israeli memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. After viewing some of the historical exhibits we went to the Children’s Memorial, a tunnel through the living rock where a single memorial candle is reflected through a system of mirrors to become an infinity of lights. The first time I saw it many years ago I broke down and sobbed. The names and ages of the million and a half murdered Jewish children are pronounced quietly as the visitors pass through.

Our Chinese guests looked at it in wonder. We emerged into the light of day and a view of the skyline of Jerusalem. The secret of Jewish creativity, I told them, is that we regard every individual human being as an entire universe. The value of each human being is infinite; the worth of one life is commensurable with the worth of all lives. By the same token, one creative mind can transform the lives of the whole of humanity. Not every one will do so, to be sure, despite the well know ambitions of Jewish mothers (as in the Jewish Haiku: “Is one Nobel Prize too much to ask, after all I’ve done?”). But the Jews are predisposed to the possibility. Talent is everywhere. The hard part is to avoid crushing it before it has a chance to flourish.