Jewish World Review / March 29, 1998 / 2 Nissan, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Bigshots or activists?

Clinton's three clerics return from China

AS YOGI BERRA would have put it, it was a case of deja vu all over again. At a press conference in New York City last week, I listened to the account of three major American religious leaders who had recently returned from an official visit to China.

They went to bring China's leaders the message that Americans are deeply concerned about religious persecution in the world's most populous country. The three were at pains to convince the large throng of journalists from the national, religious and Asian press corps of the contribution they had made Jiang to the cause of freedom for religious believers in China.

But as the event proceeded, I found myself drifting back into my own memories.

I thought back to similar speeches I had heard in my student days by Americans who visited what was then called the Soviet Union. These were often academics who bragged about the powerful Communist party leaders who received them. They were usually not terribly interested in the plight of Soviet Jews. Their main interest was in promoting "dialogue" with the tyrants of Moscow. They liked the prestige of being the official messengers and wanted no part of the dirty work of pressuring the bad guys.

Memories of Soviet Jewry

That's when I learned the difference between being a bigshot and a real activist. People like Glenn Richter, who helped found the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, were received not by Leonid Brezhnev but by police guarding Russian Missions. But it was their persistence and willingness to speak truth to power that helped galvanize the Soviet Jewry movement. And that's a lesson those who say they care about religious persecution around the world need to learn. The trio of religious leaders: Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan's Park East Synagogue, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., and Dr. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, are all decent, well- meaning and highly principled men.

Yet as they answered (or failed to answer) some tough questions about religious freedom improving in China (especially from Asian journalists like my anguished colleague from the Tibetan Language Service of the Voice of America), they had difficulty proving that they had done more than serve as window dressing for plans by President Clinton to further downgrade America's interest in human rights in China.

Their trip was a result of Clinton's summit in Washington last fall with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. When Dr. Argue, a leader of Protestant Evangelicals, was invited to the state dinner at the White House for Jiang, he courageously told Mr. Clinton that he wouldn't attend unless there was another forum where Zemin could be confronted about religious freedom. Clinton agreed, and eventually this led to an invitation for the three clerics who received the red carpet treatment throughout China.

An agenda of faith not politics

The three, who said their mission had a "faith agenda" rather than a "political" one, said their goal was to impress upon the Chinese leadership the importance Americans placed on religious freedom. To that end they met with a host of Chinese autocrats and visited churches and ruins in major cities. They were even allowed to pay a visit to a prison in Lhasa, Tibet where Buddhists monks and nuns are imprisoned.

Schneier even had the chutzpah to ask the Chinese president to add Judaism to the list of "officially" sanctioned religions in China. Though I appreciate the poignancy of the gesture, I think we Jews would do more for religious freedom by not acquiescing to the Chinese notion that some religions can be legal while others are not.

Unfortunately, the report they produced about their trip had all the outrage of a soggy potato. "Advancing the dialogue" was their mantra. As New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal put it, "The report has all the passion and compassion of a telephone directory. In tone and language it treats the Chinese Government, warden of the Chinese gulag and persecutor of Chinese Christians who disobey Beijing's "patriotic" religious regulation, as if the clergymen were bowing themselves in and out of an emperor's presence."

Providing cover for Clinton's policies

The fact is their much ballyhooed trip was perfectly timed to serve as an effective cover for the Clinton Administration. The same week as the press conference, Washington announced that it would no longer support an annual United Nations resolution condemning China's record on human rights, effectively killing the measure before the U.N.

Human Rights

Commission in Geneva. Days earlier it was announced that Mr. Clinton's planned trip to China was being moved up from November to June because the Chinese were worried the junket might be derailed by increasing human rights protests in the U.S. Nothing is being allowed to stand in the way of appeasement of China by this administration. As Mr. Rosenthal aptly put it, "Mr. Clinton is not happy when China is not happy."

That's why some of us pressed Rabbi Schneier, who himself has a long record of activism on behalf of Soviet Jews as well as non-Jewish victims of religious persecution, whether he was being used by the president.

"I'm a Holocaust survivor," Rabbi Schneier replied. "I personally suffered religious persecution and I will not be party to any deception...this was a discussion, not a photo op."

I believe the rabbi has good intentions. After all, he was one of the first American religious leaders to visit China and to try to draw attention to the issue of religious persecution. He can also say that his trip did some good by pointing out that China has now finally signed the U.N. covenant on protection of political and civil liberties.

Legislation is the answer, not junkets

But I am just as sure that what Chinese Christians and Tibetan Buddhists suffering for their faith need is for China to feel some pain for its misdeeds, rather than being rewarded for token gestures like the release of a couple of dissidents and priests. They need to know that Americans are unwilling to have principles bought off for a share of the lucrative China trade.

The solution is the Wolf-Specter bill - the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act - which the Clinton Administration is fighting tooth and nail. Schneier, McCarrick and Argue were conspicuously silent about the bill, which offers the threat of sanctions against persecutors of religious believers. In spite of Clinton's efforts to downplay Chinese atrocities, the bill has been gaining support. The latest to sign on to the fight is the Anti-Defamation League. Good for them, but more Jewish support is needed.

And with all due respect to Rabbi Schneier and his travel buddies, that's the difference between an activist and a bigshot.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


3/27/98: Will American Jews help Clinton push Israel into a corner?
3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
3/15/98: Still searching for Jews at the opera
3/11/98: Remembering Eric Breindel
3/8/98: Getting lost in history
3/5/98: Follow the money to Hamas
2/22/98: Re-writing "Anne Frank" - A distorted legacy
2/15/98: Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin