Chinese Jews have a colorful and intriguing history, although only about 2,500 Jews are believed to still remain within the entirety of China’s far-flung borders.
Nonetheless, a tiny Jewish community in Kaifeng – one with deep ancestral roots – still exists. And although they are few in number, many of Kaifeng’s Jews remain proud of their storied heritage. Today, however, they face aggressive police harassment and persecution by the Communist Party of China (CCP).
I would not have known about Jews of Kaifeng if friends hadn’t visited their religious center a few years ago. Afterward their visit, they gifted me with a box of Chinese-Israeli memorabilia, including “I love Israel” handbills in Chinese and English, a similarly decorated key chain, a Star of David lapel pin and other keepsakes.
My friends’ Kaifeng hosts regaled them with long-cherished tales about their ancestors’ wealth as Silk Road merchants. And they recounted the saga of what was once their pride and joy: an ancient and beautiful synagogue, the first built in the heart of China.
Although centuries of intermarriage have blurred their lineage, time-honored memories remain. Persian Jews arrived in China in the 10th century, and the first Kaifeng synagogue was constructed in 1163. It was destroyed by a flood, then restored in 1279. Another disastrous flood led to the synagogue’s rebuilding once again in 1653, thanks to a wealthy Mandarin of Jewish descent. Even the sacred Torah scrolls were restored.
My globe-trotting friends were fascinated by their hosts’ stories, but also related a disturbing incident that abruptly ended their otherwise enjoyable Kaifeng visit. As they were listening to a presentation in the city’s little Jewish learning center, uniformed officers suddenly appeared. The center’s hostess froze and fell silent.
As inconspicuously as possible, my friends slipped away, shocked and rather shaken.
Of course, there was a back story. In recent years, ambitious efforts have been made by foreigners to better the Kaifeng Jews’ understanding of their faith and culture. Rabbis have provided biblical teaching and instruction in Jewish traditions, including holiday observances. Donors even made plans to rebuild the ruined synagogue.
But as the little congregation grew, and as enthusiasm for their Jewish heritage deepened, the CCP became wary.
Then, in February 2018 – just about a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced a revolutionary “New Era” for China’s hardcore, atheistic regime – an intense crackdown on all of China’s religious believers was launched.
Sadly, the carefully tended little Kaifeng Jewish center was not overlooked. During a raid, government agents reportedly tore loose a metal Star of David from the entryway and tossed it on the floor. They ripped Hebrew scriptural quotations off the walls. They filled up a well that had served as a mikveh (ritual bath) with dirt and stones. And all foreign plans to build up and support the Jews of Kaifeng were summarily canceled.
THE HARSH treatment of China’s miniscule Jewish population is emblematic of the Godless CCP’s massive suppression of religious faith. And the Kaifeng Jews’ vulnerability is both ominous and all-too-familiar to millions of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Chinese Christians.
Recently, at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, US Sen. Tom Cotton delivered a major speech about China’s repression of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population, millions of whom are either being held in sadistic concentration camps, or surviving under terrifying round-the-clock scrutiny.
Sen. Cotton described the Orwellian hi-tech threats that endanger Uyghurs, as well as other religious believers and dissidents, by saying, “The Chinese government is spending tens of billions on facial recognition software, electronic spying, and coercive DNA collection, to create a database capable of tracking a person’s every move. This is the definition of a totalitarian system – one that exercises total control of your person, down to the very strands of your DNA.”
Kaifeng’s Jews are few in number – less than 1,000 souls in a population of some 1.5 billion Chinese. But they, like millions of others, remain at risk.
Of course, Jews in the world’s trouble spots are encouraged to immigrate to Israel and begin a new life. “Aliyah means the return of diaspora Jews to Israel,” an NBC News report explained. “The rite is encouraged by the Israeli government, but Kaifeng’s Jews face extra challenges in the bid for citizenship because they don’t meet the official criteria required under the country’s Law of Return.”
In reality, most of Kaifeng’s Jews are unable to leave China, largely for financial reasons. Facing an uncertain future, like so many others, they will no doubt cling to their faith, recall their unique historical legacy, and summon enough determination and courage to retain their identity in the face of an obdurate foe.
And as for China’s future plans? Sen. Cotton’s forecasts are grim.
“Today the Chinese government is purging every vestige of its subjects’ freedoms at home to pave the way for its economic, military, and political expansion abroad. China has a plan for the world, and it’s as concrete as the prison cells where it keeps dissenters.
“Make no mistake: The brutal police tactics in Xinjiang are not just an assault on that province’s native people, although they’re surely that. They’re also an assault on the American-led world order, and a disturbing premonition of an alternative world order – one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
“1984 may be 35 years in the past now,” Cotton concluded, “but for China, 1984 is still the future.
The writer is a fellow at the Hudson Institute; the author of ‘Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner’; and coauthor of ‘Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.’
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