Gaza: the view from Harbin

HARBIN, China — It’s difficult to imagine a place more removed from Gaza than this deserted, snow-blanketed cemetery on the quiet outskirts of Harbin.

In politics, culture and geography, Harbin – perhaps best known outside China as a frozen hub on the Tran-Siberian Railway — is worlds apart from the Israel-Hamas conflict. Locals are taken aback when asked about Gaza and say they feel little connection to that part of the globe.

“It’s a religious problem and I don’t know much about the history,” said Wang Rong, a 20-something Harbin resident said of the conflict. “I think they should come together and create peace.”

Read Theodore May's latest dispatch from inside Gaza.

China’s government, working to elevate its profile as a diplomatic power broker, has condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza, but Harbin residents have no interest in taking sides.

“This is a political issue. Chinese people don’t like to talk about other countries’ politics,” said a young woman who gave her English name, Susan Wu.

But an odd twist of history links this extreme northern Chinese metropolis to today’s Israel: Among those buried in the cemetery on the outskirts of Harbin is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s grandfather, Yosef Olmert, an early 20th century Russian refugee to China.

At the Huangshan cemetery’s entrance here, a monument bearing an inscription from Ehud Olmert thanks the city for sheltering his family and other Jews from persecution. His dedication in a 2006 book on the Jews of Harbin draws a line between this city and the very foundations of Israel:

“In the city of Harbin, a dream was born, a Zionist dream of making Eretz Israel a National Home for Jewish People,” Olmert wrote. “Circumstances allowed the Jews of Harbin to develop Zionist activity and inspired my parents and their friends to come to this land and continue here their realization of the old Zionist-Jewish dream.”

Olmert’s father’s family fled to China in 1917. His father and mother, Mordechai and Bella, met in Harbin, where both were fervent members of the city’s Betar Movement – the international youth organization devoted to the pursuit of a Jewish homeland. In 1933, against their parents’ wishes, the young couple left China for what would become Israel. Mordechai Olmert went on to be a member of Israeli parliament and his son would later lead the entire nation. Grandfather Yosef Olmert died in Harbin in 1941 – with oft-repeated lore being that his last words were in Chinese — and was buried here.

By the 1920s, Harbin was home to some 20,000 Jewish immigrants, most from Russia. The first wave of Jewish refugees to Harbin began early in the 20th century and continued through World War II, explained Qu Wei, director of the Harbin Jewish Research Center. As other countries closed their borders to Jewish immigrants, China remained open through decades of international upheaval (most finally left when the Communist Party took over in 1949).

Though its Jewish history receives significantly less attention than that of Shanghai, Harbin’s Jews were at least equally influential.

They opened music and art schools and taught languages to locals, owned some of the city’s most important businesses and made major contributions to life and culture here. They accounted for just 5 percent of the city’s population but created its most iconic Art Nouveau-style architecture – former banks, hotels and restaurants that now form the heart of the city’s tourist district.

Qu, whose foundation oversees the cemetery and a renovated synagogue that serves as a museum of Jewish history of Harbin, said there is a growing awareness of the city’s Jewish legacy. But even the close connection with Olmert’s his family won’t convince ordinary Chinese to take a political stand on Gaza. There has not been, nor will there be, an outpouring of support from Harbin if Israel resumes fighting.

“We Chinese people, we love peace. We sincerely hope they can achieve peace and cooperation,” said Qu. “Simply because we have a good relationship with the Jewish people, that does not mean we would support a war.”