Chinese Jews celebrate Hanukkah in secret amid gov't crackdowns - report

The Kaifeng Jewish community reportedly consists of just 100 practicing Jews among 1,000 who claim ancestry, but their history goes back over a thousand years.

China’s national flag is seen waving at the China Consulate General in Houston, Texas (photo credit: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF)
China’s national flag is seen waving at the China Consulate General in Houston, Texas
(photo credit: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF)
While Jewish communities worldwide are celebrating Hanukkah, the small community in China must do so in secret as Beijing works to crack down on foreign influences and unapproved religions in the country, The Telegraph reported.
The community in China is very miniscule, consisting of around 1,000 people of which experts say only 100 are actually practicing, and have lacked a rabbi for well over a century. However, it goes back over a thousand years, having settled in Kaifeng. Even at its height during the 16th century, it numbered just 5,000. And throughout the years, despite losing many of its members to conversion, wars, disasters and more, the community has lived on through the passing down of tradition between generations.
But as China has in recent years intensified its crackdown on unapproved religions, the community worries officials will start enforcing one against them.
“Every time we celebrate, we are scared,” a Kaifeng Jew identified only by the alias of Amir, due to fears of retaliation, told The Telegraph, adding that they work to ensure Chinese authorities never catch wind of their activities.
While much attention has been focused on China’s crackdowns on other religious groups, including the five faiths recognized by the Communist Party – Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam – Judaism is not recognized despite its long history within the country.
Already, the Chinese leadership has worked to erase much of this long history, The Telegraph reported. This includes not only the removal of museum exhibits regarding the community’s history, but also razing any physical trace of the community. This has included removing the remains of a 12th century synagogue alongside stones with engravings of the community’s traditions and heritage, some of which dated as far back as the late 15th century.
They have also removed the few signs in Hebrew that could once be found in the city, and the spot where the few practicing Jews once gathered to pray has now been covered with Chinese propaganda, a security camera and reminders that Judaism is an illegal, unrecognized religion in the country, according to The Telegraph.
Jews are so terrified they even fear meeting together in public. Instead, they do so in secret, making sure on the holidays to find funds for kosher food and wine. Lacking access to Hebrew Bibles, they use Christian Bibles and simply disregard the New Testament.
Despite this apparent crackdown on religion, some, such as retired rabbi and president of the Sino-Judaic Institute Anson Laytner, don’t consider this to be an instance of antisemitism, according to The Telegraph report. In fact, China has traditionally eschewed antisemitism altogether, with many Chinese people viewing Jews extremely favorably for their perceived success in achieving wealth and influential positions, as well as having accepted Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
And he isn’t the only one who thinks so.
In late 2019, Erica Lyons, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, defended China’s history of acceptance and tolerance of the Jewish faith, telling The Jewish Chronicle that; “In fact, Jews in Hong Kong... have never suffered from antisemitism at all.”
“In fact, the history works in their favor, because Jews were treated like garbage all over the world, but the Chinese accepted them,” Moshe Yehuda Bernstein, a researcher in Australia who has written on the Kaifeng Jews, explained, according to The Telegraph.
“It’s something the Chinese could be proud of, yet recently in this clampdown on unofficial religions, they’ve taken away all historical evidence of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng, which is absurd.”
And China appears to be well aware of this history, with its Foreign Ministry writing to The Telegraph about this tradition of welcoming Jewish refugees, while also denying the suppression.
Despite reports of the suppression, it is unlikely that this will cause any strain in Sino-Israeli relations. This, Laytner explained, is because Israel won’t want to put these ties at risk for such a small number of people. However, it is also due to generations of intermarriage meaning that they are often not recognized as Jewish under Israeli law.