Fundamentally Freund: Why is Israel ignoring China's Jews?

A misguided policy driven by a dubious fear that the Chinese might not look kindly on such contacts.

chinese jew wedding 298 (photo credit: Michael Freund)
chinese jew wedding 298
(photo credit: Michael Freund)
The world's favorite international competition is a few weeks away, but Israel is already making a blunder of Olympic proportions. The upcoming summer 2008 Games being held in China will once again provide the Jewish state and its athletes with an opportunity to shine on the world stage. As is customary, the Israeli delegation will take part in the traditional opening ceremony, proudly marching into Beijing's National Stadium and unfurling the blue-and-white flag for all to see. It is a moment that inevitably catches the attention, and touches the hearts, of Jews everywhere. This year, it will also have the added effect of underlining for untold millions of Chinese viewers just how much ties have improved between Beijing and Jerusalem since the establishment of diplomatic relations back in 1992. But whereas in previous years, Israel and its athletes have utilized the Olympic Games as an opportunity to reach out to the host country's local Jewish community in a show of tribal solidarity and brotherhood, no such gesture is in the offing for next month's games. Sadly, China's Jews are being given the cold shoulder by the Jewish state. YES, YOU read that correctly. There are in fact Chinese Jews, and they are heirs to a proud and ancient heritage dating back more than 1,000 years. The first Jews are believed to have settled in China's imperial capital of Kaifeng, along the banks of the Yellow River, during the Song Dynasty. Over the centuries, China provided its Jews with a welcome and comfortable home, free of the widespread 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, Kaifeng's Jewish community effectively disbanded. BUT THAT was not the end of the story. Against all odds, Kaifeng's Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down whatever little they knew to their progeny. Today there are still several hundred people in the city who are clearly and verifiably identifiable as descendants of the Jewish community. Nonetheless, the policy of the Israeli government throughout the years has been essentially to ignore Kaifeng's Jewish descendants, out of a dubious fear that China's government might not look kindly on such contacts. 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, the question of Kaifeng Jewry's status is a sensitive one for Beijing, which views them as full-fledged Han Chinese. And with the burgeoning of economic, cultural and tourism ties between the two nations, it appears that Israel is unwilling to go near the issue. As a result, the Israeli Embassy in Beijing has not kept in touch with Kaifeng Jewry, nor does it make any effort to reach out to them. Representatives of the community are not invited to take part in the annual Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration, nor are they included in any of the embassy's other activities. 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. Indeed, several members of the community told me recently that they could not recall the last time they had any contact whatsoever with anyone from Israel. This sad turn of events can and should be corrected. There is simply no excuse for Israel to be turning its back on Kaifeng's Jews, many of whom are deeply interested in learning more about their heritage and culture. China has always treated its Jews kindly and graciously, and there is no reason to suspect that this has changed. Israel can and should extend a hand to Kaifeng Jewry, while of course respecting Chinese sensitivities. With its international atmosphere, the Olympic Games would provide an excellent opportunity for Israel to do so, in coordination with Chinese officials. In the past, the Olympic Games have served as just such a venue. In 2000, at the summer games in Sydney, Australia, Israeli and Jewish athletes participated in a range of events that were organized with the local Jewish community. These included the hosting of competitors for Shabbat hospitality as well as the establishment of a memorial for the Israelis who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Games. Similarly, in 2002, at the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Israeli and Jewish athletes attended two receptions with Utah Jews as well as services with them. Why shouldn't Israeli officials make similar gestures vis-à-vis Kaifeng's remaining Jews at next month's games? China's Jews can serve as an important cultural bridge between the two countries, strengthening our sense of a shared past and common future. The Jews of Kaifeng are a living link between the two civilizations, and their continued existence is not only testimony to the power of Jewish memory, but also to the bonds of friendship that have existed between China and the Jewish people for well over a thousand years. It is time for Israel to stop ignoring them. Hopefully, at next month's games, Israel's athletes will excel and take home numerous medals, bringing honor upon themselves and all of us. But there could be no greater honor, I would think, than for them to renew the link between the State of Israel and Kaifeng Jewry.