Over the past two years, a series of disturbing developments has taken place in Kaifeng, China, one that threatens the future of the city’s tiny Chinese Jewish community. Inexplicably, certain local authorities have launched what can only be described as a crackdown on any expression of Jewish life in Kaifeng, and it is time for Israel and world Jewry to speak out and raise this issue with Beijing.
For more than a decade, Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, has been working to assist the Kaifeng Jews, as a growing number have sought to learn more about their ancestral heritage and return to our people. We have brought some 20 Chinese Jews on aliya, published books and other materials on Jewish topics in Chinese and conducted classes via Skype for community members.
After years in which the Kaifeng Jews were being targeted by foreign Christian missionaries for conversion I felt that I could not sit idly by, so in 2010, Shavei Israel opened its own competing center in Kaifeng to provide an authentically Jewish environment where the Chinese Jews could learn about Jewish history, culture and values. Activities ranged from studying Hebrew to Jewish cooking classes to learning about ancient Jewish texts and traditions. Some drew dozens of people, and Jewish holiday celebrations proved to be especially popular.
The center operated until 2014, when local authorities raided it during Passover, ordering that the mezuzot and all signs containing Hebrew words be taken down immediately. Since then, other worrisome measures have included the closure of the site of the well which served as the community’s historic mikve as well as periodic interrogations of the Kaifeng Jews by local police. In some instances, Jewish tour groups from abroad have even been prohibited from visiting the city altogether.
It is truly difficult to comprehend what lies behind this mounting pattern of harassment, particularly in light of the fact that China and its people have been warm and welcoming hosts to Jews for well over a thousand years.
The first Jews are believed to have settled in Kaifeng, which is located some 600 kilometers southwest of Beijing on the southern banks of the Yellow River, in the 7th or 8th century CE. They were Sephardic Jews from Persia or Iraq who traveled along the Silk Road and received the Chinese emperor’s blessing to reside in Kaifeng, which at the time was an imperial capital of the Song dynasty.
Subsequently, China provided its Jews with a comfortable home, free of the anti-Semitism, hatred and persecution that plagued Jewish communities elsewhere in the Diaspora.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt numerous times. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), Kaifeng Jewry may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.
But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews’ knowledge of Judaism. After the last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, and the synagogue which had stood for some seven centuries was destroyed in a series of floods, Kaifeng’s Jewish community effectively disbanded. But that was not the end of the story, for against all odds, Kaifeng’s Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down whatever little they knew to their progeny.
All told, there are now an estimated 1,000 people in Kaifeng who are identifiable as descendants of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community. Many have great reverence for their ancestors, a cultural attribute that is also characteristic of Chinese society generally, and several hundred have shown an interest in learning more about the ways of their forefathers, their history and legacy.
But the developments in Kaifeng over the past two years and the increasingly ominous treatment of the local Jewish community now threaten to unravel the ageold bonds of friendship between China and the Jewish people.
Earlier this year, Anson Laytner of the Sino-Judaic Institute boldly raised the issue of what was occurring in Kaifeng in his blog, and the story was later picked up by The Forward
At the time I feared the move was premature and could perhaps further complicate the situation in Kaifeng for the Jewish descendants.
But after several months of attempting to get Israeli officials to raise the issue quietly with their Chinese counterparts with little discernible effect, I have come to share Laytner’s view.
As he wrote, “What has China to fear from 500 to 1,000 Kaifeng Jews? They are a drop in the bucket of China’s population.”
Indeed, it is now imperative to shine a public light on the treatment being meted out to Kaifeng’s Jews. Simply put, Chinese Jews who wish to learn more about their heritage should be able to do so freely, and it is incumbent upon Israel and world Jewry to deliver this message as urgently as possible.
Eight years ago in these pages, I wrote a column entitled, “Why is Israel ignoring China’s Jews?” Sadly, that question still stands.
Sure, the issue is a sensitive one, since Jews are not an officially recognized minority group in China’s multicultural society, and Judaism is not accorded the status of an official religion. But with the burgeoning of economic, cultural and tourism ties between the two nations, there is no excuse for Israel’s continued silence about Kaifeng’s Jews.
Believe it or not, the Israeli Embassy in Beijing does not bother to keep in touch with the Chinese Jews, nor does it make any concerted attempt to assist them. And despite the existence of various educational exchange programs between China and Israel, the Israeli government has made no effort to enable Kaifeng Jews to take part.
Even the process of bringing to Israel those Chinese Jews who wish to make aliya has been incredibly burdensome, as I have had to struggle with the Israeli bureaucracy for years at a time just to obtain permission to bring a small number of them to Jerusalem. It should not have to be so time-consuming and difficult.
This sad situation can and must be corrected. There is simply no excuse for Israel to be turning its back on Kaifeng Jewry, who are a living link between our two civilizations. Their continued existence is testimony to the power of Jewish memory and to the centuries-old ties between China and the Jewish people.
We must speak out on behalf of Kaifeng Jewry and issue a simple yet clear plea to the authorities in Beijing: stop the crackdown on China’s Jews, so we can get back to building a lasting and stronger relationship between our two peoples.The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other far-flung Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.