Ruth Kahanoff speaks about Israel in Asia and opposite directions Print

Ruth Kahanoff, Deputy Director General, Asia and the Pacific, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Israel was in Hong Kong as a guest of the Hong Kong government Department of Information Services in January, 2012. Jewish Times Asia had the opportunity to speak with her and ask her about Israel in Asia.

Jewish Times Asia: You are no stranger to Hong Kong, nor Asia, how do you see things now?

It has been many years since I was here working in Hong Kong so I was pleased to get this invitation and be here to see all the changes and reacquaint myself with the region. The visit has already reminded us of the importance of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong itself has many opportunities for us and Hong Kong in partnerships to do things in China is also interesting, especially in South China. I believe we need to explore the opportunities on top of what the very able consul-general is doing.

We can consolidate the work going on in Guangzhou, so it is a good moment for us to get a feeling for the place and to get more ideas on where we can operate, economically, but also in research and development and with the academic communities, besides in cultural affairs.

Jewish Times Asia: Are there some very obvious changes?

Let me say that for too many years Israel looked West. In a way that was natural because in the first decades it was Europe, it was North America, that was the world that we knew. That was where the Jewish communities were, people with what we call the Judaic-Christian values and heritage so there was more communication in that direction, and we could speak the languages. So these areas took our interests for many years.

For too long we did not know how to deal with Asia. We did not pay enough attention. Well, when I say ‘we’ I mean the country as ‘we’ in the Asia Department always paid attention to Asia and for us Asia has always been extremely important as there are a lot of opportunities here. In the present and certainly in the future.

Finally, it is happening. We are looking East. The centre of the world economy is clearly moving in the direction of Asia and you have the biggest populations here and the biggest growth in economies, and this is so when the West, particularly the US, is struggling with its economic difficulties.

The business community will definitely look East, especially now that Asia takes about 20% of the total of Israel’s trade. We have strong belief that in the future the growth will be in Asia.

Jewish Times Asia: And beyond Hong Kong and China, the rest of Asia?

Quite clearly there will be opportunities, so we are recommending we work harder on Asia, especially China and India, which countries are very high on our agenda. Also Japan and Korea, Singapore also. Of course Australia and the Pacific.

But it’s not only economic interests. With economic growth the countries of the region are asserting themselves more. Increasing their profile on the international arena. Playing more important roles. So we do want to foster more cooperation.

Also, academically the institutions and universities are increasingly looking toward Asia and they are quite eager to develop cooperation with leading academic institutions and centres of excellence in Asia because of the interesting things that are being done here. We want to assure good contacts now to get that cooperation in future. And, in that regard, we would like to attract more students from Asia.

Jewish Times Asia: Are there practical measures being taken to encourage joint and mutual studies?

Just recently the government of Israel and the Ministry of Finance have allocated an extended number of scholarships for Asia students. Our universities are very interesting in attracting more students from Asia - who are considered to be hard working and bright - and bring them in and make up of all those years that we have lost.

Everyone in the cultural circles has a great interest in Asia, in the arts and culture, and Asian cuisine, so everyone now is looking East.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed the ministers of the government to make special efforts, each of them in his own field, to look for opportunities to strengthen the links especially with the major countries in the region.

Jewish Times Asia: Besides academia, what about technology for business?

We in the Foreign Ministry are paying much more attention and allocating more resources and opening new missions. One in Bangalore, India, the centre of high technology, has been given final approval by the India minister on his recent visit to Israel.

We want to open another office in the inner part of China too as we already have a consulate in Shanghai and in Guangzhou. We want to be in heart of China but are still working on that to get the budget. We want to add more people to our missions.

This year especially we are marking and celebrating several anniversaries. Twenty years in our relations with India, 50 years of relations with Korea, and Japan. These landmarks all give us opportunities to celebrate with a whole series of events, economic gatherings, high level exchanges for business - so for us it’s Asia Year.

Jewish Times Asia: Is there particular interest expressed in Jewish studies among Asian students?

At the universities in Israel more and more students are taking interest in Asia - I studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in the Asian Department where we were six students studying Chinese. But now this kind of study is in most universities. Also, many more students are leaning Chinese rather than Yiddish! There are more Asian students studying Bible than Israelis, so that’s the new reality.

NGOs are doing important jobs as are Jewish organisations around the world that are paying especial attention to Asia in trying to bring Asia and Israel together, as well as fostering Jewish-Asian cooperation

I was in Washington last month in consultation with the State Department and we used that opportunity to meet others who are interested in Asia and I noted that many of the scholars specializing in Asia had Jewish names. Something attracts them, they have an affinity. They are interested in other ancient civilisations in this part of the world which also have contributed to our present civilisation.

Jewish Times Asia: No doubt there are many business opportunities, can you share some of these possibilities?

Of course the business community has great interest in Asia and there are many business delegations going around. Ministers are meeting counterparts.

Mostly in Asia the trade missions and consulates are concentrating on economic work because of the great opportunities and also because our Israeli know-how can be very relevant to the national agenda of Asia countries as most of their top priories coincide with what Israel is offering technology- wise. Modern agriculture, water management technologies and in energy conservation. Desalination is one such, while in more developed countries it’s the technical innovations, for Japan and Korea.

We want to promote exchanges that go in both directions; Israel into Asia and Asia into Israel.

Interviewed by Tony Henderson

(Issue March 2012)