Interview With Ravit Baer, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai: Jewish-Christian Connections and Cultural Exchange Between Israel and China

Ravit Baer, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai
Ravit Baer, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai (photo: China Christian Daily )
By Anthony LeeJune 27th, 2024

Editor’s note: Ravit Baer, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai, shares her impressions of China and its rapid development since taking office in January 2023 in an exclusive interview with China Christian Daily. Born as a Jew and raised in Jerusalem, she delves into the historical connections between the Jewish community and China, the current state of Jewish life in the country, and the rich cultural and religious ties between Israel and China. Baer also highlights the importance of education, tradition, and modernity in Israeli society and expresses her hopes for future cultural and religious exchanges between the two nations.

China Christian Daily: Since you took office as the consul general in Shanghai in January 2023, what impressions do you have of Shanghai and China?

Ravit Baer: During my entire career as a diplomat over the past few years, I mainly served in places like Ivory Coast, Cyprus, or San Francisco and dealt heavily with the European Union. However, this is my first experience with China. China is incredibly developed. It's incredible to see how fast things are developing here, such as the construction of infrastructure, scientific development, and economic growth. It's quite unique, as I'm used to Western bureaucracy, where things tend to take a little longer.

China Christian Daily: Shanghai and Israel have had many historical connections, the most famous being the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which tells the story of the Jewish community living alongside local Shanghai residents during World War II. What are your comments on this period of history?

Ravit Baer: It is important to say that there is a difference between the relations between China and the Jewish people and those between China and Israel. Historically, Jewish presence in China started hundreds of years ago, with prominent groups including Jews who came from Russia to Harbin and those who arrived from Iraq into Shanghai. There is a story of Jews who fled the Holocaust in Europe during the early 1940s of World War II. The only refuge place they could find in the world was Shanghai. About 20,000 Jews from Austria, Germany, and other European countries fled Europe from the Nazis, who murdered over a third of the Jewish people, namely six million. But 20,000 of them managed to escape. They came here to Shanghai, where they inhabited the region of Hongkou, survived here, and had interesting relations with their Chinese neighbors.

I would recommend anyone interested in that story to visit the museum that tells the story. Located in Hongkou District, the museum for Jewish refugees in Shanghai was an endeavor that was done by the Shanghai municipality. When you're there, try to explore the history of relations between China and Israel. As Israel was established in 1948, many of the refugees that came to Shanghai ended up in Israel, and some went to the U.S. There are quite a few second and third generations of these refugees in Israel.

But the actual relations between China and Israel all started with the very establishment of the state of Israel and modern China. In 1949, Israel was one of the first countries to recognize China. Diplomatic relations were established in 1992, and the consulate in Shanghai was opened in 1994. This year, we are celebrating 30 years since the establishment of the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai. Over the last 30 years in Shanghai, many developments have occurred in relations between Israel and China. Many Chinese experts went to Israel to study medicine and agriculture. Since we had an advantage in technological capabilities, we were always happy to share them with China.

China Christian Daily: Can you introduce the situation of Jews in China? As far as we are concerned, there is the Ohel Rachel Synagogue (Seymour Synagogue) in Shanghai. Can you describe the gatherings of Jews at the synagogue in China? Are there any other open synagogues in other parts of China?

Ravit Baer: The Jewish population in China today is very small. I cannot say we have a community, but there are a few Jewish centers in Shanghai where one can celebrate Jewish life and holidays. You can also follow Jewish traditions, such as circumcision, which is the procedure that we do on a baby male on the eighth day to mark him joining the Jewish people. You can do bar (bat) mitzvah, which is also a ceremony that is at the age of 13 for boys and at the age of 12 for girls that marks their entering the mature life. Anything that has to do with the Jewish life cycle can also be done in those Jewish centers, and they also have a school for Hebrew and Jewish life.

I would estimate there are a few thousand people who identify as Jewish, living here for various reasons, such as marriage, work, or study, but they're kind of scattered because they come from different nationalities and they do have joint religions.

There are two historical synagogues in Shanghai, one within the Jewish Refugees Museum. I don't think it functions as a synagogue today, but it still holds the characteristics of a synagogue. The second one is the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, built in the 1920s by the Jews who came here from Iraq. It’s a gorgeous building. Unfortunately, it is not used regularly for Jewish life but only celebrates major holidays because it needs renovation. We have tried to look into options for possible renovations, and it is owned by the Shanghai government, so it's their responsibility. We hope that one day it will function as a full-time synagogue, giving service all year round. Besides that, I think there is a synagogue in Harbin.

China Christian Daily: Can you give a brief introduction to the religion and culture of Israel? As Christianity originated from Judaism, what is the current number of Christians in Israel, and what is their life like?

Ravit Baer: Religion is the center of Israel, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically, it always drew attention to it, way before the state of Israel was established. For Jews, this is the Holy Land where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob established our Jewish faith and also the promised land for the Jewish people, the chosen people.

This is also the Holy Land, where Christianity began, where Jesus lived, was born, walked on the Sea of Galilee, etc. He was born in Nazareth and passed away in Jerusalem. So there are a lot of relics that are connected to Christian life and a multitude of churches in Israel. In the 19th century, every major superpower in the world built a church in Jerusalem or elsewhere. I was born and raised in Jerusalem, and I know that everywhere you go, you can find a Russian, Catholic, or British Anglican church. The variety of Christian life there is also pretty astounding because it's not just one denomination.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are 185,000 Christians in Israel, about 75% of whom are Arab by ethnic origin. It accounts for a little less than 2% of the population. They are well-educated, more women than men, well-integrated into society, and have good relations with the rest of society and the government. All in all, I think Christian life is flourishing in Israel under complete freedom of worship and freedom of religion. It is important for us, specifically as the Jewish people, that our freedom of religion in our country is for any denomination and anyone interested, since we've been prosecuted for thousands of years because of our religion.

China Christian Daily: How many Chinese people live in Israel, and what is their life like?

Ravit Baer: We don't have an actual number due to our limited immigration laws, but there are small Chinese communities that often have married Israeli citizens. Chinese students also study in Israel, and some of them have remained for many years. There is also quite a large number of workers who came from China and resided in Israel for limited periods—five years or so. They work mostly in the construction field in Israel. They are probably the largest Chinese groups in Israel. They have their community and life, but they are not intended to stay in Israel, only for a limited time.

China Christian Daily: Israel places great importance on culture and tourism. Many Chinese Christians have undertaken pilgrimages to the Holy Land. What do you hope these Christian tourists gain from their visits? Does Israel have any specific programs or policies related to this?

Ravit Baer: We have the most important sites for Christianity in Israel, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth. About 50% of all tourists to Israel are Christians, and about 15% come specifically for pilgrimages. Christian visitors have a strong emotional experience witnessing the places where the New Testament happened. As someone who grew up in Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, I'm used to seeing pilgrims all over. There is also a very strong Christian presence in Israel. Everywhere you go, you will see monasteries, churches, and missions.

In that sense, the Ministry of Tourism and the government on its own have programs to facilitate and support infrastructure for Christian tourism. We have a very established tourism infrastructure for Christian tourists. We participate in international fairs that are related to that. Since October 7, Israel has been entangled in a war. It is heartwarming and encouraging that many Christian communities around the world have been incredibly supportive in our fight for our quiet existence. We have seen many Christian groups coming for solidarity visits in Israel, historically supporting and enhancing those relations between the Jewish religion and the Christian religion. For many years, Christians and Jews have not gotten along well. We have a historical phenomenon of being prosecuted by Christianity, and today what we're seeing is something different. We're seeing friendship and comradeship between the two religions. I do hope we'll have peaceful days coming, and when they do, we'll be happy to see Christian visitors to Israel from anywhere in the world, and definitely from China.

China Christian Daily: Israel emphasizes tradition and also religion, but it is a modern society. How can you maintain the balance between tradition and modernity?

Ravit Baer: Judaism has always been about education as a religion. One of the most basic calls in the faith is to learn and to teach your children. Ultra-orthodox Jews put their kids at school at the age of three. This is why, historically, Jews have been successful in education, business, and anything that requires knowledge and education.

The Zionist movement, which started at the end of the 19th century, looked at how we take our values as Jews. Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist from Austria, was the person who worked to create a country for the Jews. He wrote a book about how this country is going to look and created this balance between Jewish life, which is more traditional and conservative, and a modern country with modern values. In reality, when Jews immigrated to Israel, they came with a lot of motivation to create the best country, something advanced and progressive. For example, my older brother is an orthodox Jew who keeps Shabbat. He doesn't turn on the light over the weekend, but on the other hand, he is an electronics engineer developing the most advanced semiconductors.

Personally speaking, I don't look at modernity and secularism as something negative. As a Jewish person, my Jewish heritage and background are extremely important to me. I teach my kids Hebrew, we mark all the Jewish holidays and celebrate the Jewish life cycle. My son was circumcised, and both my kids had bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah. I lived in San Francisco for four years, but we did not have a Christmas tree because of Judaism, while everyone else did. On the other hand, I also believe in freedom. It's always important for me to find the balance between being a Jew and making sure that my kids understand that they are Jewish and to pass it along to their kids, but on the other hand, being free and not confined by strict rules brings Judaism to the 21st century.

China Christian Daily: You said that Judaism pays special attention to education. Israel is also known for its technology and culture. What do you think the world can learn from your country?

Ravit Baer: We've always been a problem-solving country because we didn't have a choice. Since its establishment, Israel has faced wars and a lack of natural resources because it’s mostly desert. They say in the Bible that this is the land of milk and honey, but in reality, it's a dry land, so we had to find solutions. If we didn't have water, we needed to find water solutions, so drip irrigation and desalination processes were invented in Israel.

We knew that we had to invest in higher education and research due to the lack of natural resources. Our real natural resources are our minds and our human resources. We always had to find a solution to a problem. Those solutions often became cutting-edge technologies, for example, the idea of portable memory was invented in Israel to solve the actual problem of transferring information from one computer to another. The idea of a navigation system was also invented because GPS does not tell us the locations of traffic jams, and now it’s owned by Google.

China Christian Daily: What are your expectations for future cultural and religious exchanges between Israel and China?

Ravit Baer: During the past 30 years, we have had wonderful exchanges in the fields of academic cooperation and cultural exchange. There were so many performances that came to China and Israel, and we had wonderful relations. We have many sister city exchanges, for example, Shanghai and the city of Haifa, in the northern part of Israel, and Changzhou and the city of Netanya. Historically, we share many similarities between the Jewish people and the Chinese people, being family-oriented people with 3,000 years of history and an emphasis on education and family ties. I think that brings us together as people. While the Chinese people are 1.4 billion people, the entire Jewish population of the world is around 15 million people, and in Israel, less than eight million Jews. So this is the huge difference between the two sides.

But now we need to wait a little for quieter days and more peaceful days. However, I do think the potential is huge. Things had been difficult because during COVID-19, there was no tourism, but just in the year since I came here in January 2023, we have seen so much interest in visits and cooperation between January and September and so many cultural activities happening. So I hope that we'll be able to see a lot of Chinese tourism coming through Israel. I think Israel also offers a lot as far as entertainment, culture, weather, scenery, and archaeological findings.

As far as culture is concerned, I think we love one another's culture. We were supposed to have here a few theaters from Israel, including the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. There were so many things that were on the pipe that unfortunately did not happen, but I think they will happen. There is appreciation and interest in what Israel has to offer: classical music, modern dance, world music, jazz, and so on. There is interest and curiosity in Israel about Chinese culture. We are always interested in seeing culture coming from China, whether it is plastic art, relics, or craft, but also modern artists and musicians. We have a very good basis for collaboration, and I hope we can renew it sooner rather than later.

As for religious exchanges, they happen naturally without the involvement of the State of Israel. It is important to create an atmosphere and an infrastructure for religious life. Therefore, we support religious institutions to make sure that they feel comfortable and free to cooperate with whomever they want and to host them.

China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for Chinese Christians?

Ravit Baer: You are all invited to visit the Holy Land to see where your history and our history start and continue. I hope we'll be able to create this connection between people and enhance it in the future. I want to thank anyone who has been supportive of us in the last eight months. Throughout the history of the state of Israel, this connection has been a mark of a better future.

View the interview video here

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