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I was recently at a lecture given by Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University in China. The topic of the lecture was "The Jewish Diaspora in Modern China". Professor Xin covered the brief but nonetheless important role of some Jewish communities in China, and how they fit in with some of broader Jewish and Chinese history.

During the questions portion of the lecture someone asked Professor Xin why the Japanese, allies of the Nazis tolerated Jewish emigration from Europe to China during WW2 if the Japanese knew of the Nazi's plans with the Jews? Professor Xin offered an anecdote about how the Japanese, who were not fully understanding of the Nazi animosity towards Jews, gathered some prominent Jews that were in the area and asked them why the Nazis hated them so much. The Jews told the japanese "it's because we are Asian". That got a laugh from the crowd, since Professor Xin had framed the lecture earlier by mentioning that Israel could geographically be considered part of Asia.

(I am not sure if the humor comes across well in writing so I will explain it:) The joke was that the Jews understood that the Japanese, the ones asking them the question, were Asian. So by linking the Jews to Asia they would be suggesting that perhaps the Nazis might have it out for the Japanese as well, and as a result the Japanese would not be so keen on helping the Nazis.

My question is: is there a reliable primary or secondary source for this anecdote?

P.S. Could someone please help me give this question appropriate tags

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Yoel, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for this fascinating anecdote and question! I think your tags are fine. If you were to add more, what would they be? –  Isaac Moses Feb 16 '11 at 16:36
    
The tags just seemed a little general, it could be im just used to stackoverflow where there are many more specific tags –  Jordan Feb 16 '11 at 16:43
    
Someday, B"H, we'll have millions of questions like SO, tens of thousands of which will be about history, and hundreds of which will be about china, so it'll make sense to get that specific with our tags. :) –  Isaac Moses Feb 16 '11 at 17:22
    
On further consideration, I created the holocaust-shoah tag, since I expect that to get some use on a site like this, eventually. –  Isaac Moses Feb 16 '11 at 17:29

2 Answers 2

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I can't vouch for the reliability of this source, but the story is found in Warren Kozak, The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser (HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 176-7 (cited in the Wikipedia article on the Shanghai Ghetto):

When the Germans pressed the Japanese to turn over the entire Jewish community [in Shanghai], the Japanese military governor sent for its leaders. Fearing the worst, the community sent a small delegation including the Amshinover Rebbe, Shimon [Shalom] Kalish, along with someone who could translate through English...

The Japanese governor was curious. He did not understand why these Jews were singled out from all other Europeans... Finally the governor broke his silence, speaking in Japanese with a quick, terse question, which was translated by one of his lieutenants into English. The English-Yiddish interpreter then translated it into Yiddish. "Farvoos hoben di Daitschen aich azoy feint - Why do the Germans hate you so much?" Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, Reb Kalish told the translator, "Zugim weil mir senen orientalim - Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental."

The Japanese governor, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, broke into a slight smile. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.

There's more to it than this, though. The Japanese had warm feelings towards Jews going back to the Russo-Japanese War, when the Jewish financier Jacob Schiff lent them a large sum of money (probably on the theory that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" - the Russian czar, Nicholas II, was a terrible anti-Semite). That said, anti-Jewish propaganda did make some headway in Japan during WWII, and it took heroic efforts by people such as Setzuso Kotsuji (later himself a ger tzedek) to ward off its effects.

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I heard from Rav Leib Bakst ZT"L who was in "Shangchai" at the time, that it was the Amshenover who said this. –  Yahu Feb 18 '11 at 6:39

I've heard it as well; the version I heard is that a Japanese officer had called in one of the students who had fled with the Mir yeshiva from Mir, Eastern Europe, to Shanghai. "Why do the Germans want us to ship you back?" "Because we're Asian."

My understanding is that part of the geopolitics involved Shanghai being an internationalized city as a result of the Opium Wars, which I think would have made it harder to make the Jews leave, but I don't know more details. Only that your anecdote certainly makes its way around.

There's also the "Fugu Plan" (see wikipedia); apparently some in Japan believed the Nazi propaganda about the Jews controlling all the banks and the like, and they believed that if they took some precautions, they could put that economic/industrial power to work for them.

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I heard from Rav Leib Bakst ZT"L who was a Mirrer bachur in "Shangchai" at the time, and who had what to do with the Amshenover Rebbe, that it was the Amshenover who said this. –  Yahu Feb 18 '11 at 6:40

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