For years the phrase “love Taiwan” has been one of the hottest and most frequently mentioned words in Taiwan’s highly polarized political environment. The phrase is widely used by local politicians to accuse their counterparts of failing to do something or other simply because deep in their hearts they don’t really “love Taiwan.”

The ‘love for Taiwan’ vs. ‘lack of love for Taiwan’ debate has consequently turned into an empty phrase in which the true meaning has been lost in the midst of all the political squabbling.

Yet there are indeed many people, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, young or old, men or women, and of course, whether they are Taiwanese or foreigners, who have put tremendous efforts into making the country a better place to live, an act that can truly be attributed to the spirit of “love Taiwan”. The Israeli Representative to Taiwan, Raphael Gamzou, is one of these people.

You may have spotted Gamzou, a foreigner wearing a gray Tzu Chi Foundation T-shirt, at a recycling station in Taipei City’s Jianghu Flower Market and Jade Market from time to time. Very often on weekends, the de facto Israeli ambassador to Taiwan spends an hour or two serving as a recycling volunteer in this not-so-pleasant environment for the largest Buddhist charity group in the world.

His foreign looks have very often drawn the attention of passersby, many of whom are stunned when they discover that the middle-aged foreigner is none other than the Israeli Representative to Taiwan.

“I remember when I went there (the recycling station) for the first time,” said Gamzou, “since I was big and it was hot and I sweat a lot, many Taiwanese people who saw me would ask my Tzu Chi friends about who I was.”

“They were really surprised when they learned that I am the Israeli Representative,” he said, “I love very much the reactions of these people, it helps to send the message that even though I am a foreigner, I belong to the society here.”

The head of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei said he believes that as a diplomat, when one serves in a country one should become involved in and make a contribution to that society. He added that his involvement in these activities comes about because it is important for each one of us to dedicate some time as a volunteer.

He also thinks that when Taiwanese people see him doing volunteer work, it will encourage more people to join such activity. “When people see me do these works, they think that if a foreigner like me can bend and do volunteer work for the country, he must really love Taiwan.”

When the Israeli representative meets Tzu Chi

It might seem rather extraordinary for a Jew like Representative Gamzou to do volunteer work for a Buddhist group, but Gamzou himself says that he really enjoys doing so. “It is not that I have become a Buddhist or anything like that, but I am definitely committed to the humanitarian and social goals of Tzu Chi,” he noted.

His association with Tzu Chi goes back to 2006, when Gamzou first came to the country to take up his post in August of that year. While preparing for his post, Gamzou read about the local Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, known for its international humanitarian works, in a chapter of a report about non-government organizations in Taiwan left behind by his predecessor. He was immediately intrigued by Tzu Chi’s unique combination of religion and humanitarian acts.

Not long afterwards, Gamzou become more and more interested in Tzu Chi. The ISECO head learned that David D’Or, a famous Israeli singer, had been invited to sing at the celebration in Bangkok commemorating the Thai King's 60 years on the throne.

Knowing that D’Or, a vegetarian who engages in charity events around world, would be the perfect guy to share the idea of Tzu Chi with, Gamzou successfully persuaded the vocalist to make a stopover in Taiwan for benefit concerts to raise money for the organization in December of that year,.

Since then D’Or has performed for Tzu Chi three times, including a series of charity concerts organized by the Buddhist Compassion Relief foundation in 2008 to help raise funds for victims of China’s Sichuan earthquake and the cyclone that hit Myanmar.

Encouraged by the spirit of founder of the Tzu Chi Foundation, Master Cheng Yen, D’Or himself has even produced an English-language CD exclusively for Tzu Chi.

Even more importantly, six out of the 13 songs in the album were written by D’Or himself in accordance with Cheng Yen’s own words and teachings.

“The CDs have been sold after every one of D’Or’s concerts all over the world,” said Gamzou, “and all the profits go to the Tzu Chi Foundation for humanitarian acts.”

After successfully holding the fund-raising event, Gamzou said his wife told him that they should do something more directly involved in Tzu Chi’s volunteer work.

Because of the language barrier, Mr. and Mrs. Gamzou picked the recycling activities after going through a whole list of volunteer works that one can do for the foundation, since it required only basic language skills. And that marked the beginning of his volunteer service with the foundation.

Finding similarities between Jewish ideology and Tzu Chi

Though he does not consider himself to be a religious man, Gamzou says that rather than differences, he found a lot of similarities between Jewish thought and the ideas of Buddhism. This was especially true regarding the interpretations of Master Cheng Yen, who believes that all religions are important if they work for peace and promote love among human beings.

“There is no contradiction between Tzu Chi’s values and my identity as a Jew,” Gamzou said. On the contrary, the Israeli representative said, there is a concept in Judaism called “tikkun olam” which he believes is very similar to the ideas of Tzu Chi.

"Olam in Hebrew is the world, the globe, and tikkun means to amend or repair," he pointed out.

“‘Tikkun olam’ basically means that God creates the world, prepares the infrastructure for us. But as human beings, we have the obligation to constantly make it better – to help the poor, defend the weak, heal the sick.” The way he sees it, Gamzou says, he finds in Tzu Chi’s charity work a full and complete implementation of the concept “tikkun olam.”

Another idea of the Buddhism foundation which Gamzou really admires is the tolerance of all people and all religions, a rare idea - especially for a Jew like him from a neighborhood in the Middle East where tolerance of other religions is very often not the case.

That is why you can see the sight of Tzu Chi volunteers and devotees around the world, helping needy persons regardless of their nationality, religion, sex, or the color of their skin, Gamzou noted.

“In the eyes of Tzu Chi, there is only one kind of person, which is people in need. This is the only category that matters to the foundation,” he noted, adding that the idea is one that should be promoted to the world.

As a great admirer of Master Cheng Yen, when Gamzou finally met the leader of Tzu Chi for the first time in Hualien, he decided to prepare an appropriate present for her.

Instead of giving Master Cheng Yen a necklace or a ring, Gamzou had 18 trees planted in her name in Jerusalem's Forest of Peace as the best gift for the founder of the world’s largest Buddhist charity group.

"In Hebrew, the number 18 symbolizes `life,' which corresponds to [Cheng Yen's] ideas very closely," he said. “I think that would be a most appropriate gift for her,” he explained, as it has meanings involving both environmental protection and religious significance.

The love of Taiwanese culture

Having spent the past three years on the beautiful island nation of Taiwan, the head of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei said he has tried to immerse himself in Taiwanese culture as much as possible by enjoying local artistic performances such as music and Chinese opera.

Even though very often he doesn’t understand the language, he still finds himself deeply in love with Taiwanese culture.

All the same, Gamzou noted that he thinks the Taiwan government should engage in efforts to help foreigners who have not mastered the Mandarin or Taiwanese dialect to get more involved in learning and acquiring a better knowledge of local culture and tourism.

“The best way to do that is to improve the English-language information on the street,” he pointed out.

On the other hand, the Israeli representative said Taiwan is one of the few places that he finds being a foreigner is a “privilege”, as the Taiwanese people are extremely warm and welcoming to foreigner visitors to the island nation.

He also finds Taiwan culture fascinating and special simply because it is so different from his own culture.

“I take all my guests who come to visit me in Taiwan to Longshan Temple and to the area around it because I think it is so interesting and the best place to experience the unique Taiwanese culture.” Gamzou said.

A visit to Longshan Temple is a fascinating celebration of all the senses, as the temple is decorated in colorful paintings, and at the same time one can listen to sutras chanted by followers and smell incense burning.

“This is something I will definitely miss when I leave Taiwan,” said Gamzou, who is scheduled to leave the country some time next year.

As a genuine lover of Taiwanese people and its culture, Gamzou, who used to be an official in his country’s ministry of foreign affairs responsible for promoting Israeli culture around the world, said he would like to offer a few suggestions to the local government about culture promotion.

“I am afraid there is too much investment [by the Taiwan government] in building new art centers, and not enough in encouraging new local talent.”

The Israeli representative believes that Taiwan should put money into the support of creative young artists and give them subsidies to study aboard as well as spending money in educating local audiences.

“If you want to have a flourishing culture, you have to have enough audience to support it, this should be the priority.”

Also, the government should be more generous in assisting local performing groups when they go abroad.

Taking the example of the recent visit of U-Theater, who were invited to tour Israel by ISECO and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv in March, Gamzou said the Israeli side put more money into covering the theater’s expenses than the Taiwan government did.

A successful tour by one of Taiwan’s performing groups such as U-Theater or Cloud Gate abroad is so important for Taiwan that the government should pay special attention to these events, according to Gamzou, adding that soft power can help to promote local culture to the world.

Written by Joseph Yeh

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