by Ian Buruma
A chinese bestseller titled The Currency War describes how Jews are planning to rule the world by manipulating the international financial system. The book is reportedly read in the highest government circles. If so, this does not bode well for the international financial system, which relies on well-informed Chinese to help it recover from the present crisis.
Such conspiracy theories are not rare in Asia. Japanese readers have shown a healthy appetite over the years for books such as To Watch Jews is to See the World Clearly, The Next Ten Years: How to Get an Inside View of the Jewish Protocols and I'd Like to Apologise to the Japanese - A Jewish Elder's Confession (written by a Japanese author, of course, under the made-up name of Mordecai Mose). All these books are variations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Russian forgery first published in 1903, which the Japanese came across after defeating the tsar's army in 1905.
The Chinese picked up many modern Western ideas from the Japanese. Perhaps this is how Jewish conspiracy theories were passed on as well. But Southeast Asians are not immune to this kind of nonsense either. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed has said that "the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." And a recent article in a leading business magazine in The Philippines explained how Jews had always controlled the countries they lived in, including the US today.
In the case of Mahathir, a twisted kind of Muslim solidarity is probably at work. But, unlike European or Russian anti-Semitism, the Asian variety has no religious roots. No Chinese or Japanese has blamed Jews for killing their holy men or believed that their children's blood ended up in Passover matzos. In fact, few Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, or Filipinos have ever seen a Jew, unless they have spent time abroad.
So what explains the remarkable appeal of Jewish conspiracy theories in Asia? The answer must be partly political. Conspiracy theories thrive in relatively closed societies, where free access to news is limited and freedom of inquiry curtailed. Japan is no longer such a closed society, yet even people with a short history of democracy are prone to believe that they are victims of unseen forces. Precisely because Jews are relatively unknown, therefore mysterious, and in some way associated with the West, they become an obvious fixture of anti-Western paranoia.
Such paranoia is widespread in Asia, where almost every country was at the mercy of Western powers for several hundred years. Japan was never formally colonised, but it too felt the West's dominance, at least since the 1850s, when American ships laden with heavy guns forced the country to open its borders on Western terms.
The common conflation of the US with Jews goes back to the late 19th century, when European reactionaries loathed America for being a rootless society based only on financial greed. This perfectly matched the stereotype of the rootless cosmopolitan Jewish moneygrubber. Hence the idea that Jews run America.
One of the great ironies of colonial history is the way in which colonised people adopted some of the same prejudices that justified colonial rule. Anti-Semitism arrived with a whole package of European race theories that have persisted in Asia well after they fell out of fashion in the West.
In some ways, Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia have shared some of the hostility suffered by Jews in the West. Excluded from many occupations, they too survived by clannishness and trade. They too have been persecuted for not being "sons of the soil". And they too are thought to have superhuman powers when it comes to making money. So when things go wrong, the Chinese are blamed not just for being greedy capitalists, but also, again like the Jews, for being communists, as both capitalism and communism are associated with rootlessness and cosmopolitanism.
As well as being feared, the Chinese are admired for being cleverer than everybody else. The same mixture of fear and awe is often evident in people's views of the US and, indeed, of the Jews. Japanese anti-Semitism is a particularly interesting case.
Japan was able to defeat Russia in 1905 only after a Jewish banker in New York, Jacob Schiff, helped Japan by floating bonds. So The Protocols of the Elders of Zion confirmed what the Japanese already suspected: Jews really did pull the strings of global finance. However, instead of wishing to attack them, the Japanese, being a practical people, decided they would be better off cultivating those clever, powerful Jews as friends.
As a result, during World War II, even as the Germans were asking their Japanese allies to round up Jews and hand them over, dinners were held in Japanese-occupied Manchuria to celebrate Japanese-Jewish friendship. Jewish refugees in Shanghai, though never comfortable, at least remained alive under Japanese protection.
This was good for the Jews of Shanghai. But the very ideas that helped them to survive continue to muddle the thinking of people who really ought to know better by now.
Ian Buruma's latest book is The China Lover.