Thursday, June 3, 2021

What Pearl S. Buck Knew About Arab-Israeli Relations

Why a lesson from her 1948 novel “Peony” should be applied to this ongoing, deadly conflict

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a powder keg for the world with a short fuse. Now the fuse is (temporarily) blown out, and we are led to believe that a new government in Israel (maybe) will solve the problem. History tells us that it won’t. 

In researching for my book about US-Chinese relations, I came across a passage in Pearl S. Buck’s 1948 novel that I believe applies to the current situation in the Middle East and reveals the plain truth about the nature of the situation in Israel/Palestine; recognizing the plain truth is the only route to a solution--in all cases and always

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was the daughter of Christian missionaries in China, where she was born and lived until 1934. She is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Good Earth” in 1932. Her work earned her the first Nobel prize ever given to a woman in 1938. After coming to the US, she wrote, taught and advocated for Chinese and minority causes.

The book for which she is most acclaimed is the story of the travails of a Chinese peasant family. 

So what should she know about this current, seemingly unending conflict that inflames the rest of the world with its flash fires, simmering forever under the surface and never being put out. What is the solution to the problem? Many Presidents and diplomats have tried, for decades, and still, it defies resolution. Worse, in today’s connected world, the information is available to everyone on video and, like a California forest fire, throws its embers everywhere, becoming an instant global conflagration.

So why should Pearl S. Buck know anything about Jews and Arabs? I believe that her later novel, Peony, about a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China, points directly at the cause of the conflict, which is necessary for a resolution-if there can be one.

She was born and grew up in China, so what did she know about Jews? Were there Jews in China at the time? The answer is yes. The Kaifeng (Henan) enclave is notably famous, but there have been Jews resident in China since the 8th Century AD, who were known to trade in China up to 6 centuries prior. China is part of the Jewish Diaspora; it started to figure during the Han Dynasty after the Silk Road was created to facilitate trade between China and the Middle East. Waves of Jews later followed this route between 618-807 AD, having been blessed to interact by the Tang Dynasty Emperor. Later, during the Song Dynasty, the Kaifeng community began to be formed. 

Let’s note: In contrast to many other parts of the world, Jews were accepted in China, despite their physical, racial and religious differences.

Buck’s novel, Peony, written in 1948, is the story of a Jewish family, the House of Ezra, in the Kaifeng community. Peony is a bondmaid whose only job is to take care of the only child and son of the family, David. David’s father, while observant of Judaism, is half Chinese, which makes David one-quarter. Ezra is a respected merchant in the community, with a Chinese partner named Kung Chen. Throughout the book the internal struggle between the traditions of Judaism and the open-minded and accepting Chinese community is a main element. David sees and falls in love with Kaolien, daughter of Kung Chen, and wishes to marry her. This is not acceptable to Naomi, David’s mother, who wishes David to marry Leah, the daughter of the local rabbi, so that he can personify the perpetuation of the faith. She moves the rabbi’s family into her house to promote the relationship between David and Leah. 

Significantly and notably, the rabbi is blind. 

The exchange that relates to the current Arab-Israeli situation takes place in the synagogue between the rabbi and Kung Chen (note that, when this incident takes place, Kung Chen has already accepted that his daughter marry David).

Kung Chen meets David on the street, and David informs him that he has come from the synagogue but will go back there. Kung Chen asks to accompany him, which David happily accepts. In his previous visit, David has observed inscriptions written by congregants which emphasize the inclusion between Judaism and Chinese culture. One inscription said, 

“Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.” 

Another, which both Kung Chen and David read, says,

“From the time of Abram, when our faith was established, and ever after, we the Jews of China have spread the knowledge of God and in return we have received the knowledge of Confucius and Buddha and Tao,” 

This is a message of inclusivity, not exclusion. Both David and Kung Chen are happy with this message. But, when the Rabbi becomes aware of their presence in the synagogue, including the Chinese non-Jewish man, he sings a different tune. The exchange that follows is the significant allegory for the current Arab- Israeli conflict.

The rabbi becomes angry when he discovers that Kung Chen is in the temple. He berates David and tells him he should not have brought a Son of Adam into the holy place. Kung Chen responds with the statement, “I am no Son of Adam. There is no such name among my ancestors.” The rabbi retorts that all heathens are sons of Adam, and only Jews (David) are sons of God. Kung Chen says that he does not want to be called the son of a man of whom he has never heard. 

The exchange heats up between them as Kung Chen becomes insulted and angry. The interaction goes as follows (soon you will get my point, be patient and read on):

Kung Chen: “Moreover, I do not like to hear any man call only himself and his people the sons of God. Let it be that you are the sons of your god if you please, but there are many gods.”

Rabbi, trembling: “There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name.”

Kung Chen: “So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare, but they call his name Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

Rabbi, yelling: “There is no god beside our God. He is the One True God.”

Rabbi, loudly, responding to Kung Chen’s statement that beyond this earth we cannot know: “Beyond this earth we can know! It is for this that God has chosen my people, that we may eternally remind mankind of Him, Who alone rules. We are gadfly to man’s soul. We may not rest until all mankind believes in the one true God.”

Kung Chen, in a kind voice: “God--if there is a God—would not choose one man above another or one people above another. Under Heaven we are all one family.” 

This is an allegory for the past and current situation between Palestine and Israel. Both, in their purest state, are religions of exclusion, claiming that theirs is the one true faith and that all others can be heaped into a group. Some Jews call them Goyim or Gentiles, while some Muslims call them Kafir or Infidels. Notably these are not all or maybe even most Jews or Muslims; but they are the primary actors in this conflict (who may be using the religious differences to their own political end).

So here we are: two strong, passionate, exclusionary cultures, living next door to each other through a legislated nationhood, facing off in a battle that has been going on for ages. Either/Or, not Both. Only now it gets more dangerous with each flareup, creating enmity, hate and misunderstanding worldwide.

Imagine if, in Peony, the rabbi were having this argument with a Muslim, maybe an Imam, rather than Kung Chen. Would it have come to blows? Probably. 

David, who is physically and spiritually part of both cultures, doesn’t know how to feel at first, but then remembers the inscriptions about the human mind, and the free exchange of cultures, and decides to marry Kaolien rather than Leah. Kung Chen actually remarks earlier in the work that the hybridization of the two cultures, whether by marriage or interaction, makes both stronger.

In Peony, cultural understanding and compromise is juxtaposed with a clear and fanatical exclusionary mindset, and is what wins out in the end when David marries Kaolien and gives birth to (mixed) children, happily prospering in Kaifeng as part of the community of Jews and Chinese living and working together. Had he married Leah and become a proselytizer of the religion as superior, special and exclusive, the outcome in his life and in Kaifeng would have been very different. Not better, just different.

The current story of Israel and Palestine can be imagined to be an ongoing argument with no compromise or end between the Rabbi and his Muslim counterpart, both insisting on their religious culture as superior, to the exclusion of the other, and all others.

Israel and Palestine can never conclude this battle if each insists on cultural, religious supremacy and doesn’t recognize the the other culture as different but equal. Given that their lingering hate spreads like a virus around the world, there is an imperative for a real, lasting solution that is much bigger than both of them. Cultural compromise, fueled with genuine caring about children’s lives and welfare, is a small price to pay for what would be considered a monumental victory for peace and understanding.

Changing the government won’t do it.

[1], “History of the Jews in China,”

[1] Buck, Pearl S., “Peony: A Novel of China,” (New York: Moyer Bell, 1948) p. 147.

[1] Ibid., p. 149.

[1] Ibid., p. 150.

[1] Ibid., p. 152.

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