The Kosher Olympics?

As a Chinese Jew, I have been hesitant to express myself publicly about the many crises that have made recent headline news about my mother country. Ancient custom demanded obeisance to the Emperor, with no recourse in civil disobedience. Life under the Communists has yielded progress in some areas – suspension of periodic famines from crop failures and the wider promotion of literacy – but dissent is still not a societal right. There is also my reluctance to be mistaken for a spokesperson for my people.

China is notable in being a country that has never experienced anti-Semitism.[Also notable is that Myanmar, another Asian nation under crisis, enjoys comfortable relations with Israel.] This is mostly because few Jews were known or resident in its realm, with the two exceptions being the Jews of Kaifeng (who thrived from 1163 until the 1860s) and the nearly 20,000 Jews who fled Europe during World War II and re-created a community in Shanghai. A more subtle reason for the acceptance of Jews derives from its culture, one in which a blending of beliefs is tolerated and common. In most of Asia, the Judeo-Christian view of the world with its monotheism and an exclusivity of one religion is alien. The Buddhists believe that short of reaching Nirvana, one can be reborn in any of six realms of existence. And how one is reborn is determined by one’s good behavior, not by the god of one’s faith.

The announcement by the Chinese government that it is building a kosher facility for the Olympic Games in Beijing sparked a public debate among Jews. Was this a welcome gesture, being courted as visitors? Or, was this a whitewash for China’s egregious conduct in national and international affairs? [Notable is that only Jews as a group reflexively wonder if some public act is “good for the Jews or not?”].  After two prominent Orthodox rabbis, Yitz Greenberg and Haskel Lookstein, protested in print over China’s actions in the New York Jewish Week with a petition signed by 185 Jewish leaders across the religious spectrum, the mainstream Jewish organizations— the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, and the National Council of Young Israel— were quick to reject the rabbis’ call for a boycott. Their concerns seem to be to not muddle political affairs with personal needs, specifically, for Jews to eat kosher food.

I am not naïve enough to think that nations can have perfect allies or that national organizations need not look at a broader picture of cooperation.As a Jew, however, I am mindful that one’s actions express one’s values more than any professed expression of faith or commitment to justice or human rights. We can choose how we spend our leisure time or money, according to the values we hold dear.

I, for one, do not plan to tune into the Olympics in August.I will not cheer for America, Israel, or China. Maybe it’s time for the Olympics to return to its Grecian roots and allow the athletes to compete in an arena devoid of politics.