China-Israel fest to salute bond of two ancient peoples

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What do Israel and China have in common? Quite a lot, as the Bay Area is about to discover.

The two countries have developed strong ties since they launched diplomatic relations exactly 20 years ago. Now, the nations have decided it’s time to celebrate.

The Bay Area will play host to the first Israel China Cultural Festival, a monthlong series of art and photo exhibits, film screenings, lectures, panels, comedy and children’s book events. It culminates with a big banquet in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The festival is presented by the Consulate General of Israel, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, Asia Society Northern California, the Israel Center and a score of other local Jewish and Asian organizations.

Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor (left) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Chuan photo/dan pine

The event celebrates not only the relationship between the Bay Area Jewish and Chinese communities, but longstanding economic and diplomatic connections among Jews, Israel and China.

In a toast before representatives of local Jewish and Chinese-American organizations May 22 at the Israeli Consulate, Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor raised his glass and said, “To the enduring friendship between two ancient peoples.”

Shanghai provided refuge for 25,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II. But the Jewish connection between China and the Jews runs deeper, and the festival will reflect that.

Manli Ho, daughter of a Chinese diplomat in Holocaust-era Vienna who saved some 2,000 Austrian Jews and who lived in San Francisco until his death, will speak Thursday, June 7 at an exhibition about her father, Feng Shan Ho, at the Chinese Historical Society.

An exhibit on the Jews of Kaifeng — a city in central China that Jewish merchants inhabited over many centuries — will be on display from June 18 to July 1 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Most of the Jews of Kaifeng are long gone, but today Israel and China are among the world leaders in electric car technology. That will be the subject of a panel discussion, “Driving Towards the Future: Israel, China, and Electric Vehicles,” which will take place June 14 at a Silicon Valley law firm.

The panelists will have a lot to talk about. Less than two weeks ago, Better Place, launched by Israeli entrepeneur Shai Agassi, rolled out the world’s first nationwide electric car network in Israel. Dozens of electric cars hit the road in the Holy Land, where there are four battery switching stations. Better Place also has its sights set on China, having already opened a demonstration battery switching station there.

Overall, Tor said of the Israel-China connection, “We are very important trading partners. Our economy is looking more toward Asia. That is our opportunity for growth, and that’s what’s driving the relationship.”

And what would a cultural festival be without culture? A mini–film festival June 26-28 includes “Noodle,” about an Israeli woman trying to reunite a Chinese boy with his mother, “Ushpizin” and “The Port of Last Resort,” about the Jews of Shanghai, all with English and Chinese subtitles.

For laughs, Jewish comedian Jeff Applebaum will perform June 27 at the restored Great Star Theater in Chinatown after the “Noodle” screening. He is married to a Chinese woman, so he will likely prove an equal-opportunity ribber.

Another festival highlight is a monthlong book exhibition featuring best-sellers by Israeli writers such as David Grossman and Etgar Keret translated into Chinese and English. The exhibit is on display through July 1 at the S.F. Public Library Main Campus at 100 Larkin St. The library’s Chinatown branch will host an afternoon story time for kids on June 14, featuring Israeli author Elad Weingrod’s “Like You, Like Me,” a bilingual tale about a boy in Israel wondering if there is a boy like himself in China.

The festival wraps July 2 with an invitation-only banquet at a Chinatown restaurant. Israeli professor Shalom Wald, an expert on Sino-Israeli relations, will speak, and the Tsingtao beer will flow.

At the May 22 reception, Deputy Consul General Gideon Lustig expressed enthusiasm for the upcoming festival and for the China-Israel connection in general.

“The relationship has grown so fast and so vast,” he said. “There are direct flights from Israel to Beijing and Hong Kong. In fact, [Israel] is closer to China than it is to San Francisco.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.