Someone worth knowing

Norman Kaplan — A link between China and Israel

Xu Xin


In 2002, we will witness the tenth anniversary of full diplomatic relations between China and Israel, an accomplishment universally hailed.

The normalization process was long and dramatic. Although Israel was the first Mid-East country to recognize New China in 1950, it took nearly 40 years to establish normal relations. During those years, especially after 1956, China ignored gestures from Israel for any formal contacts. Therefore, there were almost no official channels for Chinese and Israelis to contact each other. Although the situation began to improve at the end of 1970's, when China adopted her reform and open-door policy, channels, especially between individuals, still needed to be established.

After the normalization, Reuven Merhav, Israeli diplomat and Director General of Foreign Affairs of Israel, wrote gratefully that a number of personalities and organizations were responsible for this positive outcome. Among those who tried and succeeded in breaking through the dead lock one name stands out: Normal C. Kaplan, a personal friend, a native of Cleveland and currently Chairman and President of Calcol, Inc. He played a significant role in breaching the wall of secrecy.

Twenty-two years ago, when Kaplan studied in a graduate program in theoretical physics at Harvard University, he fell in love with Chinese culture and learned to speak excellent Mandarin without an accent. Because of this, he became friendly with post-doctoral candidate Dan-di Wu, the first Chinese physicist to study at Harvard. (Wu's father-in-law was a highly placed Chinese official.) Both Kaplan and Wu believed that Israel and China should become friends and establish normal relations. Their personal friendship developed so well that two kept in touch after they left Harvard. After a few exchanges, Wu requested that Kaplan provide assistance in establishing channels of communication for his Chinese colleagues to contact Israeli scientists.

Pleased to comply, Kaplan forwarded Wu's letter to Yuval Neeman, then science minister of Israel and also a theoretical physicist whom Kaplan had met at Harvard. Neeman wrote a very warm letter to Wu. However, the reply, had to be sent first to Cleveland where Kaplan lived and then forwarded to Wu because Israel did not have a postal service agreement with China at that time and no letters could be delivered from Israel to China directly. For the next few years, Kaplan played a role in third-party diplomacy and served as a means of the shuttling letters between Israel and China. By so doing, he opened an essential conduit between China and Israel.

In 1984, at Wu's request, Kaplan personally arranged a meeting between Neeman and the Chinese vice-premier of science and technology. An agreement for scientific and academic exchanges between China and Israel evolved. Since then, direct personal exchanges between the two countries were established. Accordingly, Chinese foreign minister Wu Xueqian made the following statement during his visit to Cairo in 1985: "Israeli experts and scholars are allowed to come to China as individuals to attend conferences held in China." His words publicly legitimized practices that had already taken place, as well as future Sino-Israeli exchanges.

Kaplan also arranged for Wu to visit Hebrew University of Jerusalem and meet Israeli officials privately. In those years, Kaplan not only made connections between Chinese and Israelis, but also generously covered the many expenses of such meetings. He said that he did this strictly as a philanthropist and because, "I feel it's the right thing to do."

Because of these many activities, he won the trust of Chinese and himself became a trusted messenger. In 1988, during his visit to China, he was arranged to meet with senior Chinese officials. During the meeting, he was informed that China now officially favored full diplomatic relations with Israel. Needless to say, China wanted him to serve as a messenger announce the good news. He understood the importance and wasted no time in doing so.

Learning about it, Chaim Herzog, President of Israel, thanked him and expressed his gratitude. George Bush, then vice-president of the United States, wrote to him personally and said that he was fascinated by Chinese official observations about full diplomatic relations with Israel and wished him to share it with his national security advisor.

The rest of the world soon witnessed public meetings between the Chinese foreign minister and Israeli foreign minister. Two years later, China and Israel set up offices in each other's countries, which paved the ground for the breakthrough.

Kaplan's role did not stop. He contributed funds to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when he was asked if Hebrew University could help Chinese to do research on Leprosy and other infectious diseases and to study firsthand Israel's legendary advances in the field of irrigation. With his assistance and generous support, a Chinese delegation was welcome to visit the university in order to study water irrigation techniques developed at the Hebrew University for use in Israel. Their visit included an extensive survey of Israel's agriculture, and focused on irrigation and greenhouse agriculture. Professor Yona Chen at Hebrew University returned a visit to China. The exchanges were highly meaningful. Kaplan's role was soon recognized. In 1988, he was presented with a prestigious sterling silver 60th Anniversary Medallion of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The document says, "The award is presented to you in peace and with the hope of future exchanges in the fields of academics and research between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the People's Republic of China."

Since the normalization in 1992, there seemed no necessity for him to play a continuing role as intermediary between China and Israel. However, his enthusiasm in promoting better relations and friendship remains. He started to invest in China and contributes substantial and practical means of trade. He is very supportive of the study of Jewish subjects among Chinese and has befriended many Chinese scholars of Jewish studies. In 1996, he changed his preset schedule in order to come to Nanjing to participate the first international symposium of Jewish culture co-organized by the Center for Jewish Studies and Tel Aviv University.

Today, Kaplan's business in China is expanding. His company, Calcol, Inc., is doing very well in Chinese cities such as Shengzheng and Beijing. When asked to describe his role in breaking down barriers between China and Israel, Kaplan modestly describes himself as a "messenger boy."