Israeli NGO SIGNAL aims to enhance the Chinese-Israeli strategic, diplomatic, cultural and economic relationship through long-term academic alliances.
By Avigayil Kadesh
In October 2011, the first-ever Israel studies program (ISP) in China was launched by SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing.
Less than two years later, six additional ISPs have been established, or are in the process of being established, at China’s Henan University, Shanghai International Studies University, Shihezi University in Xinjiang, Yunnan University, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Why the great academic interest in Israel?
“China defines itself as a growing ‘great power’ and is actively interested in learning from Israel’s entrepreneurial and innovative high-tech successes as well as its cultural national achievements,” according to SIGNAL.
“Furthermore, Chinese universities … see Israel’s unique geopolitical experience as potentially providing solutions to pressing Chinese issues.”
Formed in 2011, SIGNAL aims to enhance the Chinese-Israeli strategic, diplomatic, cultural and economic relationship through long-term academic alliances.
The ISP aspect is key to this effort by serving as a platform for ongoing academic exchange, says SIGNAL founder and Executive Director Carice Witte, an Israeli resident for the past 26 years. She earned a degree from Yale University in East Asian studies with a focus on China.
SIGNAL brings faculty from the ISP universities to Israel for a semester of university training in how to teach Israel studies. They begin with touring and two weeks of Holocaust education training in cooperation with Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration. Through a visiting seminar program, Israeli professors teach at the ISPs in China.
Both countries benefit
Diplomatic relations between China and Israel began in January 1992. Since then, business and industrial ties have been steadily growing. SIGNAL provides an academic foundation for this relationship in an increasingly complex Asian-Mideast reality.
Witte says it benefits both sides in practical ways. For the Israelis, China matters because it is taking a larger role in the Mideast.
“It is important to us that they understand our people and region accurately so decisions can be made toward stability,” says Witte. “Our approach in academia is the most direct way to get that information to decision-makers via their policy advisers who are, in many cases, scholars.”
SIGNAL conducted several round-table discussions at Chinese research institutes to discuss the status of Iran’s nuclear program, led by Ambassador Oded Eran, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies; and Israeli nuclear security expert Ephraim Asculai.
“Even at the leading research centers, the Chinese don’t necessarily have a lot of information about Israel and the Jewish people,” says SIGNAL Managing Director Binyamin Tjong-Alvares, “but they have a positive impression of Jews as wise and inquisitive, attributes they hold highly. They are also aware of the Mideast conflict and the perspective we offer is fresh to them.”
Their interest is not just theoretical, but pragmatic.
“The Arab Spring took the Chinese by surprise, and they feel they have an active need to understand what’s going on here in order to insure the smooth flow of oil to fuel the engine of their growing domestic economy,” Witte explains.
“They need insights into the region that they don’t otherwise have access to. They see Israel as a stable island in a sea of chaos that has these insights.”
Gravitating toward success
There are additional reasons for China’s curiosity about Israel, Witte adds. For one, China strives to be a nation of innovators, so its leaders turn to Israel to learn how it’s done – even though China, with 1.3 billion people, dwarfs tiny Israel with its population of eight million.
“They gravitate toward success. They want to know why we have so many Nobel Prize winners,” Witte says.
Another reason is Israel’s ability to engage Diaspora Jews, which China would like to replicate with Chinese nationals living overseas. And China also looks to Israel for its example of how to manage relationships with resident Muslims.
SIGNAL’s fourth Israel Studies Program was started specifically in the political science and law department of Shihezi University in Shihezi City, Xinjiang, an area adjacent to former FSU republics, because it is home to China’s second largest Muslim ethnic minority.
“The Central Party encourages advancements in Xinjiang because they believe that academic, scientific, technological and cultural programs will help maintain stability,” says Tjong-Alvares. “They have challenges in integrating their Muslim population and appreciate Israel’s similar challenges with its 20 percent Arab population.”
Witte notes that SIGNAL has the only foreign academic presence in Xinjiang, a northwestern region covering one sixth of the entire land mass of China yet encompassing only about 21 million citizens, fewer than in the city of Beijing.
“Israel studies is a completely new subject at Shihezi, so introducing it is a process,” Witte says.
Study abroad in Israel
ISPs are not the only area of activity for SIGNAL.
In collaboration with the International Relations School at Shanghai Jiaotong University, SIGNAL established the Center for Contemporary Sino-Israel Studies to lay the groundwork for bilateral research and exchanges between the countries.
Plus, SIGNAL is working to establish a year-abroad program in Israel for Arabic studies students and others from China.
“Chinese students participate en masse in study-abroad programs throughout the world, but only a handful is currently studying in Israel,” notes Witte.
“With so many top Israeli academic institutions developing degree programs in English, SIGNAL has initiated a plan to expose Chinese students to the benefits of degree programs in Israel. We are also developing a range of enrichment programs to provide Chinese students currently studying in Israel with a greater understanding of Israel and its people.”
SIGNAL has also developed the first Chinese-language, online academic resource center providing introductory scholarly material on Israel and its people. Content input and suggestions come from Israeli, Chinese and Jewish academics, Chinese bloggers and think-tank experts.
The organization’s advisory board includes such academic notables as Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh, Tel Aviv University Rector Aron Shai, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) University President Uriel Reichman, former Israeli Ambassador to China Amos Nadai, Harvard University Prof. Ruth Wisse.