By Dr. Rafael Medoff
The growing debate over whether Americans should boycott the Beijing Olympics has taken a new turn, with the revelation that China played a central role in the construction of the Syrian nuclear weapons center that Israel recently destroyed.
An investigative report by the Washington Post on May 11 revealed that the North Korean arms dealers who provided the nuclear materials to Syria evaded international restrictions on North Korean weapons-trafficking by setting up a base of operations in Beijing. Some of the materials were purchased directly from Chinese companies; others were bought elsewhere and then routed through China with their final destination (Syria) disguised. Given China’s totalitarian nature, it is inconceivable that such activity took place without the approval of the Chinese government.
The revelation of the China-Syria nuclear link comes just days after nearly 200 rabbis and other Jewish leaders urged American Jews to refrain from attending the Olympics, to protest China’s oppression of Tibet, facilitation of genocide in Darfur, friendship with Hamas, and supply of missiles to Iran and Syria.
A handful of Jewish organizations took the opposite position, denouncing any boycott of the Beijing games and claiming the rabbis had been overly critical of China. One Jewish leader even asserted that the rabbis “misstated” China’s relationship with Syria. But now we see that if there was a misstatement, it was an understatement. China’s provision of materials to build the Syrian nuclear arms center is even worse than its previously-known supply of missiles to Damascus.
China is not the first Olympics host to hide its reprehensible behavior in the period preceding the games.
During the year leading up to the 1936 Olympic games in Nazi Germany, Hitler ordered his followers to put a pleasant face on Berlin. The Nazi newspaper Der Stuermer and other overt displays of antisemitism were temporarily set aside. Of course the American public had already read numerous news reports between 1933 and 1936 about Nazi antisemitism, but out of sight is out of mind. Sure enough, many visitors to the Olympics came away with a positive impression of the new Germany.
In her book Beyond Belief, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt described how many Americans who attended the games “departed convinced that the revolutionary upheavals, random beatings, and the murders of political opponents had been greatly exaggerated or were a thing of the past … Visitors to Berlin described it as a warm, hospitable place and Germany as a country well on its way to solving the economic and unemployment problems which still plagued America.”
Foreign correspondents reported to their American readers that the Germans displayed “good will” and “flawless hospitality” (New York Times), that the Berlin Olympics would be “rated tops for all times” (United Press), and even that the games would help “assure peace” in Europe (Associated Press). An editorial in the Los Angeles Times predicted that the “spirit of the Olympiads” would “save the world from another purge of blood.”
Sadly, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt was taken in. Shortly after the games, he told American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen Wise that two tourists who attended the Berlin Olympics told him “that the synagogues are crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation [of Germany’s Jews] at present.” Despite many reports from U.S. diplomats in Germany about the persecution of German Jews, and despite Wise’s efforts to persuade the president that the tourists’ report was mistaken, “I could see” –Wise wrote to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis– “that the tourists (whoever they are, the Lord bless them not) had made an impression upon him.”
China is not Nazi Germany. But there are lessons to be learned from what happened 72 years ago. The Chinese in 2008, like the Germans in 1936, hope to exploit the games for propaganda purposes and to distract attention from their contemptible behavior at home and abroad. Having seen the consequences of treating Hitler with kid gloves, one can only hope that today’s world leaders will not repeat the mistakes and wishful thinking of the 1930s.