AJC mission to Asia finds strong support for Jews, Israel

On a recent diplomatic mission to Asia, American Jewish Committee President Robert Elman expected hospitable treatment, good food and lively discussions with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea.

But he wasn’t quite prepared for the degree of enthusiasm locals showed for Judaism, or the overwhelming interest in and support for Israel.

“That interest, the huge respect for Jews in these countries, that was the most surprising thing for me,” said Elman, a part-time San Francisco resident who divides his time between New York, Nashville and the West Coast. “In South Korea, they’ve had the Talmud translated and are studying it … and they really admire what Israel has accomplished as a nation.”

The AJC delegation included Gary Jacobs, AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute chairman, as well as local AJC San Francisco board member Linda Frank. The group met with government officials, civil society leaders, diplomats and academics in all three countries.

In Beijing, the group visited the location where former President Richard Nixon met with Chairman Mao in 1972. In Japan, AJC donated $50,000 to the Nippon Foundation to support relief work following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck Japan in March.

The eight-day mission’s goal was to nurture AJC’s positive relationship with these nations, and to discuss mutual areas of interest and concern — of which there are many, Elman said.

“We’re all concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, that’s something that affects each of us,” he said. “And with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the [unilateral declaration of independence], there’s a discussion about … how a U.N. declaration won’t bring peace between the countries, and the need to encourage Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table.”

Back in the U.S., Elman, who became president of the AJC a year ago, said the organization is dedicated to continuing the conversations they began abroad. Citing a popular exhibit the AJC sponsored in the Presidio last year on Jews in China between 1840 and 1949 — including Shanghai’s history as a safe haven for Jews during the Holocaust — Elman said there are plans to work with the Chinese government to bring a similar exhibit to Washington, D.C., and New York City.

“There is a longstanding historical relationship here,” he said. “What we want is to create a real, honest, people-to-people dialogue about how to nurture that. It’s the only thing that can fight some of the popular misconceptions, and it’s the only thing that leads to a healthier understanding of each other.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.