Zionism Had a Friend in the Far East

Sun Yat-sen's sympathetic attitude towards the Jews deserves mention precisely because he owed them nothing.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Sun Yat-sen, who is considered the father of the Republic of China, was a revolutionary, a physician and a politician who died at the age of 59 in 1925. While still a child, he moved to Hawaii to live with his brother. He was influenced by the ideas of Abraham Lincoln, studied medicine at an English school in Hong Kong, and when his first attempt to topple the emperor failed, he was exiled from his country and lived in Europe and Canada, among other places. He also came to know Jews, several of whom managed to enlist him in support of Zionism: In 1918, his movement, the Kuomintang, published a statement of support for the Balfour Declaration.

Sun himself announced his sympathy for Zionism in 1920: "All lovers of democracy cannot help but support... the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honorable place in the family of nations," Sun wrote to a member of the Kadoorie family in Shanghai. In one of his books he mentioned that, like the Chinese whose country was conquered, the Jews too had lost their land - but survived. The Hebrew University's Meron Medzini, a scholar of Japanese and Chinese history, conjectures that several of the wealthiest Jews in Shanghai may have helped finance Sun Yat-sen's campaign, but his sympathetic attitude toward the Jews deserves mention precisely because he did not owe them anything.

In an article in the latest issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (volume 7, number 1 ), Medzini writes about a topic that is not much discussed: the Chinese and the Holocaust. That is, what the Chinese knew about Nazi Germany and the annihilation of the Jews, and how the Holocaust affected their attitude to the Zionist struggle.

Anti-Semitism was rare in China, and more prevalent in Japan. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" came out in Japanese in the early 1920s, but no publication of it in Chinese is known, Medzini writes. Nazi-style anti-Semitism was introduced to Japan by German officers who served there, and by Japanese officers who served in Germany. But there is no evidence that officers and diplomats from China who served in Germany adopted anti-Semitic positions.

Hitler's "Mein Kampf" came out in Chinese in 1936; one sentence that would be offensive to Chinese and to blacks was omitted from the translation. Here and there, reports appeared in China about the persecution of Jews in Germany during those years, but basically the Chinese were concerned with troubles of their own: Starting in 1937, they once again had to defend themselves against Japan.

Some of the Chinese who resided in Europe, among them statesmen and diplomats, tried to help the Jews. One of them, V.K. Wellington Koo, served in the League of Nations and later was appointed his country's ambassador to London and Washington. He met a few times with Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel. The Chinese consul in Vienna, Feng Shan Ho, issued thousands of visas to Jews, enabling them to leave Austria; a few ended up in China. He was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. During the war Shanghai was home to some 20,000 Jews.

It is possible that Chinese diplomats abroad reported back on the murder of the Jews in Europe, but in Medzini's opinion, most Chinese, including their leaders, knew nothing about the Holocaust. After World War II, as well, they were preoccupied with their own problems. The fate of the Jews apparently seemed to them to be a blood-drenched chapter in the history of a distant, one may say far-flung, continent. For their part, a majority of the Jews who sat out the war in China then left it.

But China could not ignore the struggle over the future of Palestine. As a member of the United Nations Security Council until 1971 (when the People's Republic took its place ), Nationalist China had the right of veto. Zionist diplomacy invested substantial effort in the Chinese. In April 1945, somebody recalled one of the most colorful Jews in China at that time, one Morris Abraham Cohen. Cohen was an adventurer who was famous, among other things, for the two guns he always carried, and which gave him his nickname.

Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen was born in Poland, reared in England and wound up in China, where he became Sun Yat-sen's personal bodyguard. His story is well-known, having spawned books and also a movie called "The General Died at Dawn." Representatives of the Zionist movement flew him to the United States to help out with their efforts to secure China's support for them. And so he did.

He wasn't the only one. A leader of the Revisionist movement who lived in Shanghai, Judith Hasser, managed to obtain a declaration of support for Zionism from Sun Yat-sen's son. Moreover, U.S. Republican Senator Robert Taft wrote to the Chinese Embassy in Washington that masses of his constituents in the state of Ohio expected China to support the Zionist struggle. Taft pointed out that the Japanese, enemies of the Chinese, had been the Nazis' allies; he also mentioned a pending Chinese request for an American loan of $50 million. A Chinese diplomat also visited Palestine as secretary of the UN's Special Committee on Palestine.

All these efforts yielded partial results, as the Jewish Agency's Moshe Sharett reported to David Ben-Gurion. Sharett met in Washington with Ambassador Koo, the same man who met Weizmann previously. At the UN General Assembly, Koo spoke warmly about the Jews' suffering and the need to find a solution to their problem, but added that the division of Palestine might bring bloodshed for which China could not take responsibility.

In the fateful vote of November 29, 1947, the Chinese abstained, though as early as March 1, 1949, they recognized the State of Israel. Medzini surmises that it was not the Holocaust that determined their policy, but rather their interests in America.

Sun Yat-Sen supported the Balfour Declaration.

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