Interview'The Jewish people never gave up. They kept coming back'

In 1st Israel visit, a Tibetan leader quietly seeks support, hails Jews’ return

Lobsang Sangay makes low-key trip, does not meet with Israeli officials, encourages nonviolence without taking a side

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (courtesy Department of International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala)
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (courtesy Department of International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala)

The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile quietly visited Israel over the last few days in a low-key bid to shore up support for his people’s campaign for more autonomy from China.

Lobsang Sangay, known as the Sikyong, or “ruler,” of the Central Tibetan Administration, flew back to his home in India on Sunday evening after spending nearly a week in Israel, during which he toured the country and met with civil society groups.

He deliberately did not ask for meetings with government officials, saying he wanted to learn more about the country first, but intends to return here next year and step us his advocacy.

In line with Tibetan tradition, Sangay hailed nonviolence as the best way to fight oppression and achieve peace, though he steered clear of taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“As Tibetans, we advocate nonviolence and we practice nonviolence,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview in his Jerusalem hotel Sunday. “Without intruding into the domestic issues, we always say that we believe in nonviolence. Because we believe that for lasting peace, we need the process also to be peaceful. Then you reach lasting peace.”

There are six million Tibetans who are subject to repression and violence from the Chinese authorities, he said.

“Tibet is under occupation. But our response to that is a peaceful way, nonviolent way. That’s our belief,” he said. History will judge whether that is the right approach, he added, acknowledging that it certainly will take a long time before his people achieve justice and freedom.

Practically speaking, the Central Tibetan Administration, which is based in Dharamsala, India, has adopted the so-called “Middle Way approach,” which calls for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet within China.

The US administration sees no contradiction between its One China policy and the Middle Way approach, according to Sangay.

“If the US government can support both, I am pretty sure that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should not have any problem doing the same,” he said. “Hopefully he does that. That’s what we encourage.”

The Dalai Lama, Tibets spiritual leader, attends a meeting with Israelis chief rabbis in Jerusalem, February 19, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on issues relating to China and Tibet. The current Dalai Lama, Tibetan’s spiritual leader, has visited Israel on several occasions.

Some 150 Tibetans have committed self-immolation, Sangay said. While these people died very violent deaths, they did not harm one single Chinese person. These actions reflect both the Tibetans’ determination and their desperation, as some consider it preferable to be dead than to live under occupation, he said. “We will protest, but we will not harm you,” he added.

Is that concept translatable to the Israeli-Palestinian situation? “That’s for each one to judge and each one to decide,” he replied, adding that he would not make comments or recommendations for other peoples’ struggles. “This is what we do. Nonviolence is what we practice, and we think nonviolence is the best way.”

In recent years, there have been several rounds of dialogue between envoys of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, though no breakthrough was reached. “I really don’t see why the government of Israel cannot support these policies and recommendation,” Sangay said.

Netanyahu has elevated ties with Beijing as a top foreign policy priority, which Sangay says does not bother him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and China’s President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on March 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Etienne Oliveau)

“Of course it’s all right to glow about China. It’s all right from our point of view. It’s good to have trade, economical and political relationships with China,” he said. “But at the same time, stand for moral issues, for human rights issues. These are things we ask for. Because what we ask for is nothing illegal or contradictory.”

The Chinese government usually exerts extreme pressure on countries hosting the Tibetan Sikyong, which is why he and his hosts — a group called Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People — only publicized the visit close to its conclusion.

“The Chinese government is everywhere. They have tentacles everywhere,” Sangay said, adding that he was certain that Beijing’s presence and influence is strong in Israel as well.

Would top officials in Jerusalem be willing to meet him? Sangay, who spent many years in the US and holds American citizenship, is hopeful, but not sure. “We have not tested the waters so clearly,” he said. Usually, it takes two to three years before he returns to a country he has just visited, he noted, but he plans to come to Israel as soon as next year.

As the political leader of the Tibetan people in exile, Sangay, who holds a doctorate in law from Harvard University, regularly consults with the Dalai Lama, who expressed encouragement for this visit.

For us Tibetans, the Western Wall is His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Sangay, who was born in India to Tibetan refugees but has never been to Tibet himself, said he doesn’t usually travel to a foreign country without a clear political agenda and meetings with key officials.

“It’s my first time that I didn’t have a specific agenda,” he said. “This time, it’s more personal. I’m a bit of a history buff and a bit of a news junkie,” he said, adding that it was his first-ever trip to the Holy Land.

He did meet with pro-peace advocacy groups such as Women Wage Peace and Combatants For Peace, visited the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and took an extensive tour through Jerusalem’s Old City.

View of Jerusalem’s Old City seen from the mount of Olives, April 30, 2018. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“Personally, having read about Jews, Holocaust and Israel, to turn facts and figures into feelings and emotions, to have the imprint, was both educational and inspiring,” he said.

He  also prayed and placed a note at the Western Wall.

“Who has not read about the Western Wall? It’s sobering, it’s overwhelming, it’s emotional,” he said. “You think of all those 2,000 years when pilgrims after pilgrims came and just cried tears facing the wall. It just reminds you of the Tibetan story.”

Like the Jews, Tibetans had to “give up our country and live in exile,” he said. Tibetans living under Chinese rule often cry when they meet him or the Dalai Lama.

“For us Tibetans, the Western Wall is His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he said.

The Jerusalem holy site is “very emotional and poignant and at the same time it’s inspirational,” he went on. “Two thousand years and the Jewish people never gave up. They kept coming back. And here we are.”

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