Chinese authorities said they would make unique arrangements for President Shimon Peres so that he can attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics without desecrating the Sabbath. Some Israelis and American Jews have said that attendance at the China games under any circumstances would be a violation of Jewish tradition and morality.
The Office of the President officially informed the Chinese Olympics Committee on Thursday that President Peres accepts the invitation to attend the opening events of the Olympics on the evening of August 8. The announcement followed great efforts on the part of the Chinese government and the Olympics Committee to accommodate Shabbat restrictions observed by the President as an official representative of the State of Israel.
Initially, the President's Office informed Chinese officials that Peres would not be able to be present at the opening event in the stadium, which will take place on a Friday evening, due to the desecration of the Sabbath that would entail. In response, according to a spokesperson from the Office of the President, "The Chinese did not give up and decided, in an unprecedented step, to separate the President of Israel from the other heads of state and to accommodate him in a special hotel which was built within the Olympics compound at a walking distance from the event arena." Transportation by vehicle is forbidden on the Sabbath according to Jewish religious law and tradition.
In the message conveyed to the Chinese government, President Peres said that he "sees great importance in the strengthening of the relations between Israel and China and in promoting the economic, cultural and security ties."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, "The presence of President Peres in the Olympics opening event has an additional symbolic significance, as President Peres is the Honorary President of the Israel-China Friendship Association and among the architects of the important relations between the two countries."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose grandparents and parents lived in Harbin, in northeast China, said in 2007, "We feel a lot of gratefulness for the Chinese people for the very warm and friendly manner in which they treated Jewish people both in Shanghai and in Harbin. So China is not another country for me. China is very much a part of my family heritage and memory of my family. And we have great love for the Chinese people."
Boycott Effort Suffers Serious Setback
Some Israelis and American Jewish leaders have expressed their objection to any attendance at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, with some calling for a blanket boycott of the games, in protest over China's poor human rights record and ongoing occupation of Tibet.
Balfour Hakak, chairman of the Israeli Authors Association, called on the Israeli government to boycott the 2008 Olympics. "News about terrible things happening in China are constantly flowing in," he wrote. "The Chinese are building the Olympics sports facilities with one hand, while they are locking up dissidents while harvesting their organs for transplantations with the other. But because China is an economic power that someday might even surpass the West, nobody dares to confront it."
In late April, leaders of several American Jewish organizations published a letter urging Jews around the world to boycott Beijing over China's record on Darfur, Tibet and human rights. The letter also noted China's support for continuing aid to Hamas and the country's military links with Iran and Syria.
Leading the charge was the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, former chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Council and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan. Signing on were the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the executive director and president of the American Jewish Congress, and the executive vice president of the
The letter also noted China's support for continuing aid to Hamas, and the country's military links with Iran and Syria.
The Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the American Jewish Committee and B'nai B'rith International rejected the call for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
The effort at a boycott of China suffered a serious setback this week when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he would be attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics. He had been the most prominent leader suggesting a boycott until a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit of industrialized powers in Japan. US President George Bush also announced that he would be attending the ceremony. European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering announced that he would not be there. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he will only be attending the closing ceremony, but not due to participation in the boycott.
Reporters Without Borders claims that about 100 journalists, cyber-dissidents, bloggers and Internet users are imprisoned in China at this time.