Beijing’s Popular, Hebrew-Speaking PR Man in Israel Masks an Unequal Power Dynamic

January 11, 2022 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

In the coastal city of Haifa, a new, expanded, and fully modernized port has just opened—run by a Chinese company. The project raised eyebrows in Washington, tied to to long-running disagreements over the implications of Jerusalem’s economic relations with Beijing. Matti Friedman explores the issue by profiling a man known as “Chinese Itzik,” the Communist country’s Hebrew-speaking, media-savvy public-relations man in Israel:

In 2009, with China taking a greater interest in Israel, he was selected to run the Hebrew desk at China Radio International, a state outfit that might uncharitably be called a propaganda arm or, more generously, a showcase for China’s best self. (The Hebrew desk doesn’t actually broadcast radio, only videos.) The CRI website has a lot of upbeat content about, for example, the many plusses of life in Xinjiang. In Itzik’s rise from an obscure city to an elite college, then to studies abroad, and then to an official media job, it’s possible to sense the hand of the state identifying and promoting a gifted young person.

In one video (not available in the U.S.), he joins Golani Brigade soldiers in basic training, getting his shaggy hair buzzed by an army barber and struggling to clear a concrete wall in the obstacle course. He’s impressed! The tough guys from Golani play along, hands on their rifles. They look down on their funny guest from China and miss the real power dynamic—that the visitor represents a superpower that is rewiring the planet, while they represent a country whose entire population is the size of minor Chinese cities that even people in China probably haven’t heard of.

Itzik is worth watching not just because he’s entertaining and interesting, but because he’s a way to understand how China would like to talk to Israelis now. Someone there is watching us carefully and learning fast. It was only in 2014 that the local Chinese embassy hosted Liu Qibao, a member of the Politburo, for a speech at Tel Aviv University, and asked university administrators to instruct students to stand outside the building waving Chinese flags.

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