By Jason Lim
Growing up in Korea, I remember a book that my mother used to read religiously. It was a thick tome called, ``The Jewish Way to Raise a Genius.”
Curious that my mother seemed to treasure it so much, I actually leafed through it as a kid, although I must have been less than nine years old at the time. I don’t recall what it said with perfect clarity, but I do remember how it praised the Jews for having an almost supernatural ability to induce unworldly self-discipline and instill ingenuity in their children, which has led them to be such a dominant force in world affairs despite having a very small geographical and population footprint.
It exhorted the Koreans, whom it likened to the Jews in terms of historical oppression, to do what the Jews do, especially when it came to raising children. After all, the future begins with your children’s education.
Hmm, now that I think about it, perhaps that’s why my parents sent me to a private high school whose student population was overwhelmingly Jewish. I went to more Bar Mitzvah’s than regular birthday parties and was even given a honorary Jewish surname by my best friend’s dad: since my last name was a ``Lim,” it was only right that my Jewish surname would be ``Limowitz.”
We did have a Japanese transfer student with whom I became friendly. I don’t know how we got to talking about this topic, but he once told me that any book with ``Jewish Way of …” in its title was almost always a best seller. Of the few titles that he mentioned, the one that always remained with me was, ``The Jewish Way to Dominate the World.”
This stayed with me not because it was shocking or enlightening, but because it was so patently ridiculous to think about my classmates, with whom I commiserated every night over impossible homework assignments and ridiculously difficult exams, as well as the girls that we had crushes on but wouldn’t give us the time of day, are being raised in some mysterious way to participate in some ethnicity-based conspiracy to control the world when they grew up.
I actually told my friends about this apparent tendency in Asia to venerate anything Jewish, and we all had a good old laugh planning how we would convince Jackie Mason to do a one-man show in Asia called, ``The Authentic Jewish Way of Saying ‘Oy Vey!’” I mean, what a deliciously sneaky way to revive the dying Yiddish language. And just imagine the potential ― we would be rich!
All the laughs aside, I had forgotten about this strange and misguided Korean fascination with the Jews until I was pointed to an April 2 Korea Times article titled, ``Are Koreans Jewish in fervent nationalism?” by a Facebook friend who had posted the article on her wall.
The point of the article is actually about Korean’s tendency to celebrate anything noteworthy done by an ethnic Korean with national pride and over-the-top exuberance. It quotes Lee Yeon-ho, a professor at Yonsei University, as saying, ``I think Koreans are emulating the Jewish people in some way. Korea’s population is so small and not many people have advanced into renowned international organizations. So, they tend to support those with Korean descent.”
Of course, the underlying assumption is that the Jews do the same thing: celebrate noteworthy achievements by a fellow Jew. This assumption, in itself, is not shocking or outlandish. I mean, what ethnic or national group doesn’t? What are the Olympics all about then if not about celebrating national triumphs over others?
On the surface, it would be a stretch to make a connection between my mother reading a book called, ``The Jewish Way to Raise a Genius” 30 years ago to this article called, ``Are Koreans Jewish in fervent nationalism?” But what I did find disturbing was the realization that the Jews still hold a strange fascination in the collective Korean psyche.
Strange is the key word here because Jews are somehow considered exotic and mysterious as a group. They (Jews) supposedly have a way of teaching their children, succeeding in business, controlling the politicians, producing creative geniuses, or infiltrating international organizations that only they know and that we should discover and emulate. This worries me.
Sure, the admiration is there, but it’s an admiration based on the wrong assumption that the Jews are somehow an ethnic cabal that holds the secret to worldly success. It’s an admiration based on the concept of the Jews being something superior, but nevertheless alien. It’s an admiration that’s dangerous because there’s a very fine line between being admired for being different and persecuted for being different.
Any viewpoint that considers a group of people, ethnic or otherwise, as a monolithic assembly sharing a common characteristic or acting in unison for a common goal instead of a collection of diverse individuals is inherently dangerous. This is a painful 20th century European lesson that we would do well to review in 21st century Asia.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on facebook.com/jasonlim2000.