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Explaining Israel to Taiwanese

Last week the American Anthropology Association (AAA) announced the results of a historic vote over a resolution advocating the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. With 51% of the membership voting, the resolution failed by just 39 votes: 2,423-2,384, essentially a tie. Having written a fair amount advocating the boycott for Savage Minds (see here, here, and here) as well as a postmortem after the vote, I was asked to write a piece for the Taiwanese anthropology blog, Guava Anthropology. Since that piece draws a lot from the Savage Minds posts linked above, I won’t post the entire thing here; however, I did add a section trying to explain Israel to a Taiwanese audience which I think is worth reposting in English, so I’ve cleaned it up a bit and posted it below.

Jews are not the same thing as Israelis

Having lived in Taiwan for over a decade, I frequently find myself explaining to Taiwanese friends, colleagues, and students that being Jewish doesn’t make me an Israeli. Because so many of these same Taiwanese adamantly proclaim that their ethnic Chinese heritage does not make them “Chinese” I’m surprised that they find it so hard to separate my ethnicity from my nationality (I’m American). But it isn’t really that surprising. After all, the conflation of ethnicity and nationalism in both Taiwan and Israel is the result of deliberate government policies. Since 1950 Israel’s Law of Return offers Jews world over the right to Israeli citizenship. Similarly, for much of its history, Taiwan’s KMT government claimed to represent all of China and “depicted itself as the guardian of ‘traditional Chinese culture’.”

Today, the younger generation of American Jews, just like the younger generation of Taiwanese, is beginning to question such ethno-nationalist identities. Just as young people in Taiwan are more likely to support Taiwanese independence than their parents were, so too are young Jews in America more likely to be critical of Israel than their parent’s generation ever was.

Although many Taiwanese do see similarities between Israel and Taiwan, these are often informed by self-serving myths promoted by the Israeli government. Thus Israel is seen, like Taiwan, as a country whose existence is threatened by hostile neighbors. Israel likes to portray itself as a kind of David standing up to the Arab Goliath. As a Jewish kid growing up in America many of the holidays we celebrated (Purim, Hanukkah, etc.) were built around such David and Goliath narratives, encouraging us to think of ourselves in the same way.

While Jews from my parent’s generation still see Israel as a David figure, those my age or younger are more likely to see Israel in the role of Goliath. Just as younger Taiwanese tend to see China as a colonial presence in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, most younger Jews similarly see the continued occupation of Palestinians territory in Gaza and the West Bank as unjust bullying by one of the best funded military powers in the region.

There is another way in which Israel is more like China than it is like Taiwan: both countries deflect criticism of government policies by deliberately misunderstanding them as an insults against their population. China has objected to so many criticisms on the grounds that they “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” that the phrase has become a joke. Similarly, the Israelis frequently attempt to portray criticisms of their policies towards the Palestinians as anti-semitism.