Diplomaquatic Relations

IMG_2220In 1992, Israel and China established diplomatic relations between their countries. An embassy was set up in Tel Aviv, trade and all manner of business ventures bloomed and travel restrictions were eased such that more than 70,000 Chinese nationals are reported to have visited Israel this past year alone.

The growing presence of Chinese in this country is charIMG_2194acterized by the growth of Chinese-owned enterprises and restaurants, joint ventures and academic exchanges: The Confucius Institute of Chinese Studies was founded at Tel Aviv University and countless Chinese students now study in Israeli universities – including doctoral and post-doc students.

Notably, Israel’s outgoing President, Shimon Peres made his last state visit to the People’s Republic of China just last month.

IMG_2213Who could have imagined, back when diplomatic relations were first created, that two decades later, one of China’s historical treasures would become such a sensation on the shores of the Galilee: Dragon boat racing. This 2500-year old Chinese legendary event got its start on the shores of Lake Kinneret three years ago, when a Canadian team set the idea in motion. Boats were shipped to Israel from Canada, coaches were sent to train locals. Rowers became dragon boat paddlers, as did retirees, grannies and army vets.IMG_2186

Now, three years later, Dragon Boat Israel continues to attract new members, young and old, from diverse backgrounds; paddlers are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze – and now, Chinese, comprised of students and Embassy staff. International dragon boat racing events have sprouted on the Kinneret and one of the local teams, the Ohalo Dolphins, are gearing up to race at the World Championships Crew Club in Italy this coming September.

IMG_2209But I digress…

This morning, the 2014 Drakon Ba-Yarkon (Dragon on the Yarkon River) competition took place at a site a stone’s throw from where I happen to be staying this week in north Tel Aviv. So when I heard the cackling sounds of a gravel-voiced man testing out a bullhorn shortly before 8 o’clock, I picked up my camera, water and hat, headed out and locked up.IMG_2217

It was a sight to behold – and hear. Not just because a small marching band was playing mariachi-style music, and not only because the team members’ uniforms were (in some cases) laughably unique; but also because of the hybrid groupings of spectators, the flags and languages.

IMG_2226The Chinese ambassador,Mrs Gao Yanping, launched the meet by throwing handfuls of rice grains into the wind, scattering them over the heads of paddlers. Then she and the Ethiopian-born representative of Tel Aviv’s municipality added a speck of red paint to the dragons’ heads. Chinese students, children and men in suits stood side by side with Israelis, South Africans and Russians. And together, they cheered on the racers as they moved towards the starting position.IMG_2238

As paddlers stretched themselves to the limit, moving fervently towards the finish line, their drummers pounded hard and coaches yelled for more from the back of each boat. Dogs and runners and cyclists and power walkers all came to a stop, mesmerized bythe sight of a relatively recent addition to Israel’s sportscape.

IMG_2248Under the Tel Aviv sun, already at 10 o’clock baking like an oven, I leaned back on the grassy slope and watched with a mixture of joy and envy. I’d raced for three years with a Toronto-based team, so perhaps it was no surprise that a voice in my head suddenly issued a command: Paddles Up!  Then, as a colorfully-painted, dragon-fronted boat glided by more slowly than the rest, I had to restrain myself from yelling at the paddler seated in the back row, looking worn and spent: REACHHHHH!

You just HAD to be there; to see the camaraderie, the team spirit, the laughter, the fun. Far-fetched as it sounds, could it be that cooperative global ventures such as this might have a part to play in the search for peace, not just in this region of the world, but elsewhere as well? Bring it on, peace negotiations on the water!IMG_2185

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4 Comments

  1. Great post. Who knew there are dragon boat races in Israel! I think you might be on to something; global peace might be able to be negotiated on the water 🙂

  2. Why is there no mentioning of the Daniel Rowing Centre???
    The Daniel Rowing Centre organized and produced the Yarkon Dragon Festival – all the photos in this article are from this event.
    The Daniel Rowing Centre has been producing the annual Yarkon Dragon Fest for a few years already.
    This year the Daniel Rowing Centre initiated the cooperation with the Chinese embassy and invited the Chinese to take part in the production and in the event itself. The cooperation worked fantastically well, and next year’s plans are even grander.
    Zohar Neuner

    1. Zohar, Toda raba (thank you) for mentioning the involvement of the Daniel Rowing Centre in the Festival. My “article” wasn’t written as journalistic piece of prose. Even though I’m a writer and my writing has appeared in the press, if you look at many of my previous postings, I hope you’ll notice that I BLOG from a personal perspective rather than in an objective, reportage style. I apologize for the oversight and hope that you’ll continue to enjoy reading my blog! Shabbat shalom, Amit

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