There were 19,850 Jews in China in 1935: one community in Shanghai and another in Manchuria. The Shanghai community was dominated by Sephardim of Iraqi origin, descendants of Elias Sassoon and his clerks, who had set themselves up in business after the Opium War and had grown fabulously wealthy in the development of Shanghai. The Manchurian community at Harbin was of Russian origin and dated from the construction of the tsarist Chinese Eastern Railway. It had later been swollen by refugees from the Russian civil war.
Zionism was weak among the 'Arabs', who were one of the wealthiest ethnic communities in the world, as they had no interest in leaving their good life. The Zionists in China were Russians. They, too, were part of the imperialist presence and had no desire to assimilate into the Chinese nation. Capitalist and middle class, they had no interest in returning to the Soviet Union, and their Jewish identity was reinforced by the presence of thousands of White Guard anti-Semitic refugees throughout northern China. Zionism's separatism had a natural attraction, and within the movement Revisionism had the most appeal. The Russian Jews were traders in an imperialist and militarised environment, and the Betar combined an enthusiastic capitalist and imperialist orientation with a militarism that was extremely practical in a context of White Guards who had become lumpenbandits. Revisionism seemed ideally suited to the harsh world they saw around them.
'An Active Part in the Construction of the New Order of East Asia'
The Harbin community thrived until the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1931. Many of the senior Japanese officers had taken part in the 1918-22 expedition, which had fought the Bolsheviks by the side of Admiral Alexander Kolchak's army in Siberia, and they had picked up the White Guards' Jewish obsession. Soon the local White Russians became a central prop for Japan's puppet 'Manchukuo' kingdom, and many were directly recruited into the Japanese Army. White Russian gangs, protected by the Japanese police, started extorting money from the Jews, and by the mid-1930s most of Harbin's Jews had fled south into Nationalist-held China, rather than endure the severe anti-Semitism.
The flight of the Jews seriously affected the Manchurian economy, and by 1935 the Japanese had to reverse their course. The military had their own distinctive version of anti-Semitism: there was a world Jewish conspiracy, and it was very powerful, but it could be made to work in the Japanese interest. The Japanese would dangle Manchukuo before world Jewry as a potential haven for German Jewish refugees and they would also take a pro-Zionist line. Then, it was believed, American Jews would invest in Manchukuo and mollify American opinion over the invasion of China and even the growing Japanese friendship with the Nazis. This was a forlorn hope, as the Jews had little influence on American policy; furthermore, Stephen Wise and the other American Jewish leaders were deeply opposed to collaborating with the Japanese, whom they saw as the inevitable allies of the Nazis.
The Japanese had much more success convincing Manchukuo's remaining Jews that it was in their interest to collaborate, not least by curbing the White Russians and closing down Nash Put, the organ of the Russian Fascist Association. The leader of Harbin's Jews was a pious doctor, Abraham Kaufman, who was deeply involved in the local community. He was greatly encouraged by the change in Japanese policy and, according to a Japanese Foreign Office report, in 1936-7 he and friends asked permission to set up a Far Eastern Jewish Council. Its aims were to organise all the Jews in the Orient and to disseminate propaganda on Japan's behalf, particularly in taking a stand with Japan against Communism.
The first of three conferences of the Jewish communities in the Far East was held in Harbin in December 1937. The decor of these conferences is seen in photographs in the January 1940 issue of Ha Dagel (The Banner) which, in spite of its Hebrew title, was the Russian-language magazine of Manchukuo Revisionism. The platforms were always festooned with Japanese, Manchukuo and Zionist flags. Betarim acted as guards of honour. The meetings were addressed by such people as General Higuchi of the Japanese Military Intelligence, General Vrashevsky for the White Guards, and Manchukuo puppet officials.
The 1937 conference issued a resolution, which it sent to every major Jewish organisation in the world, pledging to 'cooperate with Japan and Manchukuo in building a new order in Asia'. In return, the Japanese acknowledged Zionism as the Jewish national movement.Zionism became a part of the Manchukuo establishment, and the Betar was given official colours and uniforms. There were moments of embarrassment in the new relationship, as, for example, when the Betar had to be excused from the parade celebrating Germany's recognition of Manchukuo. But, in general, the local Zionists were quite happy with their cordial relationship with the Japanese regime. As late as 23 December 1939, an observer at the third conference reported 'joy all over town'. The gathering passed several resolutions:
This Convention hereby congratulates the Japanese Empire for her great enterprise of establishing peace in East Asia, and is convinced that when the fighting has ceased the people of East Asia will set on their national construction under the leadership of Japan.
They went on to say that:
The Third Conference of Jewish Communities calls upon the Jewish people to take an active part in the construction of the New Order of Eastern Asia, guided by the fundamental ideals laid down of a struggle against the Comintern in close collaboration with all nations.
Verdict: the Zionists Collaborated with the Enemy of the Chinese People
Did the Manchukuo Zionists gain anything for the Jews by their collaboration with the Japanese? Herman Dicker, one of the leading specialists on Far Eastern Jewry, concluded that: 'It cannot be said, in retrospect, that the Far Eastern Conference made it easier for large numbers of refugees to settle in Manchuria. At best, only a few hundred refugees were permitted entry.' In the last days of the Second World War the Soviets marched into Manchuria and Kaufman was arrested; ultimately he served eleven years in Siberia for collaboration. Certainly Manchukuo Zionism was deeply enmeshed in the Japanese structure in Manchukuo. The Zionists had not supported the Japanese conquest, but once the White Russians were curbed they no longer had any grievance against the Japanese presence. They had nothing to gain from a return of the Kuomintang, and they dreaded a Communist revolution. They were never pleased with Tokyo's connection with Berlin, but they hoped to temper that by using their influence with American Jewry to promote a compromise with Washington in the Pacific. There is no doubt that, despite their dissent from Japan's German policy, the Japanese saw the Manchurian Zionists as their willing collaborators.