The Year of the Diamond: Chinese New Year in Israel Ushers in Era of Booming Ties

Israeli hotels add rice porridge to their breakfast buffets and diamond merchants applaud the boom in Chinese tourism to Israel

Ronen Shnidman
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Year of the Pig
Year of the Pig Credit: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg
Ronen Shnidman

This week, Chinese families around the world welcomed the incoming Year of the Pig.  Across Israel, Chinese families also celebrated the Chinese New Year, aka the Spring Festival, on Monday night, gathering with family and friends, as they have since the first Chinese immigrants came to Israel in the 1970s.

But for the first time, this year's festivities included an official Chinese New Year party supported by the Confucius Institute, a non-profit educational organization that promotes Chinese culture around the world, with funding from the Chinese government.

“Like Rosh Hashanah to Jewish people across the world, the Spring Festival is also widely celebrated as the most important time of the year inside and outside China,” says Wan Ting, China’s cultural attaché in Israel. Different ways of marking the holiday have developed around the world, Ting says. "Chinese communities in Israel have been celebrating it by sharing traditional Chinese folk arts with their Israeli friends, such as making qipao, traditional Chinese garments, paper cutting and Chinese food.”

The government-supported ceremony is also a sign of the warming ties between Israel and China, which have put Washington's nose out of joint. Jerusalem isn't blind to the dilemma: earlier this year the security cabinet convened a special discussion on the ramifications of China’s involvement in Israeli infrastructure projects.

Whatever Washington may feel about it, Israel has a Chinese community eager to improve people-to-people ties between the two countries, though the community’s size is not clear. Unofficial estimates put the figure in the low tens of thousands, including ethnic Chinese who are Israeli citizens or permanent residents and migrant workers from China.

Chinese humor and Netta

The official party on Monday was organized by the Israel-China Friendship Society at a school in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. Roughly 60 people came to share a festive meal, as well as Chinese and Israeli songs, jokes and other forms of entertainment.

Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019.
Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One Chinese joke told in Mandarin by two Chinese-Israeli children: “A mother asks her son, ‘Your room looks like a pigsty. Why don’t you clean it up?’ The son responds, ‘Since when do pigs clean up their own pigsty? Isn’t that the job of the pig’s owner?’”

Most of the people there were from mixed Chinese-Israeli families raising their children with a mashup of both cultures.

The children were given little red envelopes of money, called hongbao in Chinese, similar to the Jewish practice of giving gelt to children during Hanukkah. And there were a few tell-tale Israeli elements to the party, such as when an 11-year-old Chinese-Israeli girl belted out Israeli Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai’s “Toy” to applause.

“Until this year, ever since we moved to Israel six years ago, we held a Chinese New Year party at our home,” said one of the event organizers, Maggie Yan, a prominent Beijing architect who met and married an Israeli in China.  “Every year we invite friends to celebrate the holiday, but this year it has become official.”

Chabad kindergarten in Beijing

Most of the Chinese-Israeli families at the party were formed in China by Israelis working abroad who met local Chinese and married them, the organizer says. In fact, several of the families know each other from Beijing, where their children attended a Chabad-run kindergarten. Subsequently they all moved to Israel within a year or two of each other and continue to associate with each other.

Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019.
Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, there were opportunities specifically for native Israelis to participate in Chinese culture for the holiday.

Longtime Chinese-Israeli resident Din Cohen brought the Chinese New Year holiday spirit on Wednesday to the twenty or thirty elderly Israelis she regularly works with at a community center in Tel Aviv’s Bitzaron neighborhood. Cohen made traditional dumplings called jiaozi,  folded to look like the silver or gold ingots that were once used as currency in ancient China. They are supposed to bring material wealth to their partakers. She also brought a game to help Israelis learn to use chopsticks.

A folk artist performs during an event celebrating the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, at the Qingzhou ancient town in Weifang, Shandong province, China, January 28, 2019.
A folk artist performs during an event celebrating the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, at the Qingzhou ancient town in Weifang, Shandong province, China, January 28, 2019.Credit: \ CHINA STRINGER NETWORK/ REUTER

Cohen moved to Israel in 1993 from the city of Qingdao in China’s northeastern Shandong province after meeting and marrying an Israeli there. She began volunteering at the community center 19 years ago,  where among other things she teaches the Israelis Chinese songs and dances.

“I have two mothers,” says Cohen by way of explanation. “China is my big mother and Israel is my little mother.” She even celebrates both Israel's and China's independence days with the people at the center.

As relations between China and Israel warm, the Chinese Culture Ministry has joined together with the Suzanne Dellal center in Tel Aviv, which will be featuring Chinese dance and song from February 12 to 16. And, tourism from China has been booming.

Nearly 120,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel in 2017, according to the latest Tourism Ministry data, and the growth potential is vast, considering that 145 million Chinese tourists traveled abroad that year, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. That larger number is likely to grow even more as more and more people in China join the middle class.

Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019.
Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The peak time for Chinese tourism to Israel is right after the Chinese New Year, says local tour guide Zahi Gabay, who caters primarily to Chinese tour groups. “Almost all Chinese like to spend New Year’s Eve with their families, but there is a vacation period immediately following that holiday that many Chinese like to use to go traveling abroad,” says Gabay. “This year most Chinese groups will arrive starting around February 8." Most will leave by February 18, he adds.

The week of vacation in October that Chinese receive to commemorate China’s independence is also a peak period for Chinese tourism to Israel, Gabay says.

Israeli hotels have begun offering congee, a rice-based porridge popular with Chinese, as part of their famously lavish breakfast buffet offerings. Meanwhile, in the past six months three Chinese airlines, Sichuan Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines, have opened new routes to BenGurion International Airport from the cities of Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzen, respectively.

Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019.
Chinese New Year in Tel Aviv, February 6 ,2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli diamonds on Alibaba

The hotels aside, another of Israel’s oldest and largest industries has taken notice of the Chinese tourism influx: the diamond trade. During their visits, many Chinese tourists stop by the jewelry stories surrounding Israel’s diamond exchange in Ramat Gan to shop for themselves and  for family and friends back home.

Not only does the Israeli diamond industry seek to benefit from the surge in Chinese tourism to Israel around the major Chinese holidays: it hopes to entice Chinese luxury shoppers from the comforts of their own homes. The IDE offers Israeli diamantaires’ merchandise on both and Ali Auction, the e-commerce company’s luxury goods platform. An auction for diamonds and diamond jewelry is slated to be held on Ali Auction on February 8-20 in honor of the Spring Festival.

Chinese New Year isn’t as large a shopping event as Black Friday or Singles Day, at least yet. It's become another important date on the calendars of Israel’s tourism and diamond industries. And if relations between Israel and China continue to warm, expect more and more regular Israelis to take note in the coming years as well.