Crisis in Kaifeng:  Update

Anson Laytner, Editor, Points East

News of the crackdown in Kaifeng gained worldwide attention after Chris Buckley, a New York Times reporter, based in Beijing wrote two articles, the first of which reported the current situation (“Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/world/asia/china-kaifeng-jews.html?emc=eta1&_r=0 ) and the second, an in-depth interview with Moshe Yehuda Bernstein, gave background and context (“Jewish and Chinese: Explaining a Shared Identity” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/world/asia/china-kaifeng-jews-moshe-bernstein.html ).  It was the paper's most-emailed international news story on a second day, and was reprinted in many local papers.

Michael Freund, of Shavei Israel, wrote an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, which called on the Israeli government to intercede and ask Beijing to stop the crackdown, noting that "There is no excuse for Israel to be turning its back on Kaifeng Jewry, who are a living link between our two civilizations."  (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/FUNDAMENTALLY-FREUND-Stop-the-crackdown-on-Chinas-Jews-467140 )

Sam Kestenbaum at The Forward wrote a follow-up article on the situation  (http://forward.com/news/349913/who-are-the-kaifeng-jews-and-why-is-china-cracking-down-on-them/? ) and both The Times of Israel (www.timesofisrael.com/chinese-authorities-crack-down-on-tiny-jewish-community/#.V-fd9z0jQpE.email ) and the Jewish News Service (www.jns.org/.../chinese-crackdown-on-jewish-practices-in-ancient- community-of-kaifeng ) ran shorter articles.

In other places, Mattias Messmer, in Germany, wrote on the subject (http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/26451 ) and Kenneth Tan publicized the issue on Shanghailist  (http://shanghaiist.com/2016/10/03/kaifeng_jews_crackdown.php ) while What’s on Weibo (http://www.whatsonweibo.com/jews-in-shanghai/ ) contrasted how China is developing Shanghai as a Jewish tourist site with a mention of the crackdown in Kaifeng.

The news brought out well-intentioned folk who want to know how to communicate their concerns respectfully to the Chinese authorities and zealots who are all for a worldwide Jewish boycott of China.

SJI both respects China’s sovereignty and wants the Kaifeng Jews to be able to flourish. The Chinese national policy on the status of the Kaifeng Jews can remain what it is (if need be), but the national authorities should permit Henan and Kaifeng the flexibility to adapt things to fit the facts on the ground.  In other words, no recognition as a national minority, but recognition as a local minority.  Give the Kaifeng Jewish descendants a chance to survive!

 

The Changing Status of the Kaifeng Jews

By Anson Laytner

The status and identity of the Kaifeng Jews has progressed through a number of historical stages: the formative years, the open door era, and the period from around the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel down to 2015, and the present situation. Due to various constraints, the present situation will not be discussed until more facts are available.

Phase I: The Formative Years

The period running from shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic until China opened the doors of Kaifeng again to western visitors in the 1980s is important in terms of establishing a baseline identity.

Between 1949 and 1980, the Kaifeng (KF) Jews had been visited by only two foreigners.i But this did not mean that nothing was happening. Quite the contrary!

In 1952, two delegates from KF represented the Jewish community in the National Day celebrations in Beijing. They met PM Zhou Enlai and the People’s Daily called Jews one of 46 ethnic groups attending the banquet. Delegates requested that they be recognized as a national minority.ii  In the census of that same year, many KF Jews self-identified as Jews and their residence registration booklet and ID cards marked them as such. The local government accepted their claim and never challenged their identity.

In 1953, the local United Front asked Central United Front if it should recognize Jews as an ethnic group. In an official document published on June 8th, the central government officially denied the KF Jews ethnic minority status based on the five objective (i.e. Stalinist) criteria they used and instead declared them to be Han.  The final decision that “Kaifeng Jewry should be treated as a part of the Han nationality” was qualified by the caveat that the authorities “should take the initiative to be more caring for them in various activities and educate the local Han population not to discriminate against or insult them. This will gradually ease away the differences they might psychologically or emotionally feel exists between them and the Han” (Xu 2004, 6).  This document continues to this day to be the defining document regarding the status of the KF Jews. Over the years the central government’s attitude towards the Kaifeng Jews has wavered between denial and tolerance.

But while all this was going on, some Kaifeng Jews didn’t eat pork and were granted an extra ration of mutton like the Hui Muslims; they cherished the well at the former synagogue site—and their local identity papers still identified them as Jews.

1957 saw two foreign visitors: the Czech sinologist Timoteus Pokora and the Canadian sinologist René Goldman (who then was living in Poland). The latter’s account is telling about how the government managed the issue during this period:

In the course of this visit, two of us had to be quite persistent in our entreaties with the city Cadres before they acknowledged that indeed the Kaifeng Jews existed…They drove us to visit one such family which still lived in the ancient lane of the Chinese Jews…We were received by an elderly gentleman surnamed Li and his wife: unfortunately, because of the presence of the Cadre, the discussion was formal and reserved… when upon leaving the house I discreetly whispered to the old gentleman that two of us were Jewish he beamed effusively and shook our hands. (Pollak, 1980, 248)

Summary, Phase I

The primary conclusion to be drawn from the formative phase is that the Chinese government was attempting to unify the country and, as part of this effort, had embraced a single objective standard by which to determine national ethnicity, one that, by its own criteria, but not with intent to discriminate, excluded the Kaifeng Jews.

 

Phase II Openness in Action

As China began to open up following the purging of the so-called “Gang of Four”, foreign journalists began to visit Kaifeng again for the first time since the mid-1950s.iii   Their articles showed that the Kaifeng Jews maintained, at the very least, a vestigial sense of ethnic identity, which, of course, was being reinforced by the visits of foreign guests.  Also at the same time, Western Jews started to visit Kaifeng with increasing frequency. A number of people who became the Sino-Judaic Institute’s founders were among them.

All this forced the authorities to reconsider the issue of the Jewish nationality. In March 1980, the local United Front again asked the Central United Front: Should the Kaifeng Jews be treated as a minority group and how should they be referred to and treated in foreign affairs? The national body reaffirmed the 1953 document and suggested setting up representative figures to meet with foreigners (Xu, 2004,7).

Dr. Ron Kaye and his wife visited Kaifeng in 1981. Because of the medical aid he provided there, the local authorities, who had said that the stone tablets, or stelae, no longer existed, reversed their position and took the Kayes to the basement of the Kaifeng Museum where Dr. Kaye saw the steles and took rubbings of them. While there, he also led a seder with some of the Jewish families.iv

Dr. Wendy Abraham led the first official group tour from America to Kaifeng in August of 1983 after the American Jewish Congress put Kaifeng on its China tour itinerary.  Dr. Abraham recalled that her group met with Shi Zhongyu and Zhao Pingyu—the two descendants that local authorities would allow to meet with visitors. Security guards kept a close watch on the gathering, monitoring questions and responses. During their very first meeting, her group took some Polaroid photos and, after she gave one to Shi Zhongyu, he quietly handed it back to her. She noticed he had written his name and his home address on the back of it rather than his danwei, or work unit. She took this as the signal that he would like to communicate and that began her long correspondence and connection with the Shi family.

Meanwhile, in 1981, the eminent sociologist, Jin Xiaojing, published two articles in a popular Chinese magazine recounting her discovery of her Kaifeng Jewish roots. She had thought her family was Hui Muslim until she heard otherwise in a lecture by a colleague. The Kaifeng Jews were no longer just a subject of foreign interest.

Around the same time, Kaifeng municipal leaders began to explore how Western interest in the Kaifeng Jews might lead to a major expansion in tourism and economic investment for the city.

After SJI’s founding, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer visited Kaifeng in 1985, visited the sites, conducted a havdallah service with the Kaifeng Jews without incident, and interviewed a number of them. Shortly thereafter, however, Dr. Abraham traveled to Kaifeng to gather oral histories and to share Jewish information with them. She was arrested and then expelled. But her interviews showed that her subjects maintained a strong sense of identity as Jews based on their shared history rather than any sense of religious observance, an identity still confirmed by their local—but not their national—identity papers.

That same year, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer led a Jewish tour group to China. While they were in Xian, the authorities called in Rabbi Tokayer and said that the group would be arrested if they went to Kaifeng. Instead they flew the group to Canton.v

What caused the change in attitude in China? Perhaps it was a February 1985 feature in Time magazine, entitled “New Hope for the Jews of China,” which stated that “the prospect that they may soon be able to rebuild their synagogue has given the Jews of Kaifeng new hope that their long years of decline are finally over” (Urbach 2008, 85).  In an apparent response, on July 16 1985, a decree released by the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council of China (Guowuyuan Zongjiao Shiwu Ju) proclaimed that:

In China there used to be a Jewish nationality, but they have long been assimilated into the Han nationality. Our country does not have Jewish minzu [ethnicity] and does not have Jewish religion: therefore, the question of building a synagogue does not exist (Urbach 2008, 94-95).

By September, the city government had officially denounced the Time article for spreading lies about rebuilding the synagogue and disavowed any involvement in the scheme. However, the real issue was that what was being planned in Kaifeng went against official national policy (Urbach 2008, 85).

The last episode to push the limits of openness, came in 1989, when the American Jewish investor, Marvin Josephson, whose wife is Chinese, asked Rabbi Belzer to arrange a bat-mitzvah for their daughter in the Kaifeng, with members of the Kaifeng Jewish community attending. But, before departing Beijing for Kaifeng, the Josephsons met with US Ambassador, which attracted media coverage, which led to the Kaifeng CITS being ordered to cancel the ceremony, even though a last-minute compromise was arranged.  The senior CITS official involved candidly later told Noam Urbach: “Everything we do needs to be done quietly. There is no reason to let the authorities in Beijing know every little thing, because they get the wrong impression….talk over these things can only do damage” (Urbach, 93). Nothing better states the conflicting agendas on the local and national levels.

Summary, Phase II

Despite the continuing national policy denying Jewish ethnic identity, the increasing number of journalists, tourists, academics and activists coming to Kaifeng to meet Kaifeng Jews led to a number of significant developments:

1. The residual identity of the Kaifeng Jews was strengthened by the visitors.

2. The Jewish education and acculturation of some Kaifeng Jews was initiated.

3. Dreams of capitalizing on foreign interest in the Kaifeng Jews emerged both in the minds of some Kaifeng Jews as well as in those of municipal officials.

4. Foreign media coverage led to renewed scrutiny by national bodies of the situation in Kaifeng, to conflict between local proponents of economic development and those national bodies, and to renewed restrictions on both the Kaifeng Jews and foreign visitors.

 

Phase III The Period From Around the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between China and Israel through 2016

The local champions of economic development persisted in developing their project to lure foreign capital to Kaifeng by focusing on the Kaifeng Jews. Their vision was supported by the gradually improving relations between China and Israel, culminating in the establishment of full diplomatic relations in January 1992.

In May, the Israeli ambassador, Dr. Zev Suffot came to Kaifeng and was given the usual tour. Asked later by the Jewish Agency about working there and possibly bringing the Kaifeng Jews to Israel, Suffot said no, writing: “To claim they are Jews is absurd; there is nothing between these people and Judaism. It is obvious that this is the utter misuse of a term that has an objective meaning, not only halachic but also as an objective definition. We must deal with facts not with make-believe. This is my expert conclusion” (Urbach 2008, 99-100).

His attitude notwithstanding, buoyed by the new diplomatic relations, the KF municipal government allowed the founding of the Society for the Research of Jewish History and Culture in Kaifeng, headed by the Prof. Zhao Xiangru, a prominent member of the Academy of Social Sciences and a newly aware and active Kaifeng Jew, and the local scholar of the community and curator of the Municipal Museum, Wang Yisha.

In January 1993, the Research Society established a Construction Office to build a synagogue/museum, with Wang Yisha as its managing director. Two representatives from Kaifeng’s Jewish community, Zhang Xingwang, also known as Moishe (sic) Zhang, and Jin Guangyuan, were appointed as functionaries to the Construction Office. The official order emphasized that the creation of a Kaifeng Jewish History Museum was to be “in accordance with the country’s policy in foreign affairs, minorities and religion” with its objective being to “advance the city’s openness, contribute to its economy, promote technological and cultural ties, attract investments and technologies, and promote the economic advancement of Kaifeng.”vi

But Wang Yisha and Zhao Xiangru quarreled. Despite decades of friendship with some KF Jews, Wang Yisha followed the governmental line saying there were only Jewish descendants, not Jews; Zhao Xiangru, on the other hand, newly returned to his Jewish roots, was a vocal advocate for a distinctive Sino-Judaic identity and a revival of its culture (Urbach 2008, 91-92). Conflicts between Zhao and Wang—and Zhao’s political indiscretion—led to his eventual dismissal from the Society.

In May 1993, Prof. Zhao and Prof. Andrew Plaks, then a sinologist at Princeton, convened 50+ Kaifeng Jews, the largest such public gathering of Chinese Jews since the 1919 conference arranged by Bishop White. In comments at the conference, Zhao called for self-revival and restoration of Judaism and aliyah. Going public in a May 12 Jerusalem Post article, Zhao declared that “we are part of world Jewry and we consider our ancestral home to be Israel” and reported plans to restore Kaifeng’s Jewish cemetery, to construct a memorial hall based on the design of the Kaifeng synagogue, to establish an “Overseas Jews” economic zone for foreign Jews to engage in commercial activities and build factories. He was denounced to United Front and placed under house arrest in Beijing, removed from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and given early retirement. (Urbach 2008, 110-11)

In April 1995, Jin and two other Kaifeng Jews visited the Israeli Embassy in Beijing to inquire about the status of Kaifeng Jews under the Right of Return but he was not allowed to meet with any embassy officials.  Nine months later, in January 1996, the mayor of Kaifeng issued an order closing the Construction Office and suspending all of its pending projects. Although no particular reason was put forth, one can surmise that the decision represented the renewed application of the national policy and a reversal of the more lenient attitude that had prevailed since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and China. The mayor’s edict was followed by intensive police surveillance of all Chinese-Jewish activities (Urbach 2008, 122-124).  Then Jin and his colleagues returned to the Embassy again in August 1996 after having their local residency papers (hukouben), which classify them as Jews, authorized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The Israeli Embassy turned them away again. Upon returning to KF, the local police told them the documents were issued by mistake and attempted in vain to retrieve the Foreign Ministry materials.  A month later, the United Front and the Kaifeng police announced that all Kaifeng residents registered locally as “Jewish descendants” would be compelled according to law to change to Han or Hui, as they wished. But the Jewish identity option no longer officially existed even on the local level.

Did the authorities act because Israel rejected the Kaifeng Jews as Jews? Or did they act because a few Kaifeng Jews had asserted their identity and connection with Israel? It is unlikely, however, that the authorities and the Israeli Embassy were working in tandem, even if they favored the same result: that the Kaifeng Jews become Han.

During this time, Kaifeng began to attract American messianic Jews, or as I prefer to call them Judeo-Christians, who come to play an important role in the identity formation of the Kaifeng Jews.  The ironic part is that, even if conversion was their ultimate objective, along the way these Judeo-Christian missionaries did much good. For example, in 1999, the Jin family was linked with Finnish Christian Zionists and taken first to Finland and then on to Israel by the Shavei Israel, the Israel-based organization that seeks to return “lost Jews” to the Jewish homeland.  Jin’s daughter became the first Kaifeng Jew to convert formally to Orthodox Judaism in 2002, while Jin and his wife converted and celebrated their marriage according to Jewish law in 2005. In 2006 he was able to return to Kaifeng, where he managed to regain his Chinese passport and now actively urges his compatriots to emigrate from Kaifeng to Israel.

Meanwhile other efforts were being made to educate the Kaifeng Jews. In 1999, Prof. Xu Xin led a group of 12 foreign Jews to Kaifeng to make the film “Minyan in Kaifeng,” featuring a Shabbat dinner and service with Kaifeng Jews.  In 2000, the Israeli Noam Urbach, came to Kaifeng to study Chinese at Henan U. In 2001, the authorities allowed Shi Lei to take advantage of an offer by Rabbi Tokayer to study in Israel to study.  In July 2002, 12 Kaifeng Jews traveled to Nanjing for a 3 week workshop on Jewish history and culture hosted by Prof. Xu Xin at his Center of Jewish Studies at Nanjing U and, in 2005, Prof. Avrum Erhlich offered something similar for a group at Shandong U’s Center for Judaic and Inter-Religious Studies.

However, the most remarkable achievement in recent years has been the establishment of the Yiceleye (or Israelite) School, the first Jewish school set up in Kaifeng in modern times. And for this, we have an American Judeo-Christian named Timothy Lerner to thank. Lerner says his aim was to help Kaifeng Jews "learn the Jewish lifestyle" and move to Israel.vii  Eventually the authorities learned of his work and he was kicked out although he still returns for short visits and also meets up with KF Jews in Israel.

After Lerner was expelled for the second time, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg eventually came to Kaifeng to teach at the Yiceleye School. Concerned by what he learned about Lerner, about the missionary intentions of the Hong Kong Christians who funded the school, Rothberg engineered a breakaway school, which he called Beit HaTikvah. It is significant that while the Yiceleye School operated furtively behind drawn curtains, the Beit HaTikvah School, located in a residential apartment block, had a sign with a Star of David by its doorway publicly proclaiming its identity as a center of Chinese-Jewish culture.

For a time, the Kaifeng Jewish community was more divided than ever, with four distinct factions, as the Chinese call them: Lerner’s Yiceleye School, with links and funding from Hong Kong Christian-Zionists; the Beit HaTikvah School, initially led by Rothberg and funded by the Sino-Judaic Institute; a third group based around Shi Lei, and lastly Guo Yan, of the Zhao clan, who operates a family museum from her ancestral home.

In 2004, Shavei Israel’s founder Michael Freund came to Kaifeng with several Orthodox Israeli rabbis. Shavei subsequently started bringing young people to Israel to study.  Seven young people: 6 girls and a boy arrived in 2006. Four of the young women converted and become Israeli citizens in 2007.  In 2013, 7 young adult males, whom Shavei Yisrael brought from Kaifeng to Israel to study several years earlier, also converted to Orthodox Judaism and became Israeli citizens. One, Yaakov Wang has declared his intention to become a rabbi and return to Kaifeng to lead his community.  At the same time, Shavei sent Eran Barzilay and other young Israeli Chinese Studies majors to Kaifeng to teach at Beit HaTikvah and help organize the community. Recently, because Shavei maintained a continuous presence in Kaifeng, it has been able to assert its primacy by engineering a merger of the two schools under its banner.

In March 2014, Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund, plus Eran Barzilay, three Orthodox rabbis, and two Israeli immigration officials visited Kaifeng. Were they there to determine the Jewishness of the community? To prepare them for aliyah? Their purpose was never made public. Later that spring, the school celebrated a rather public traditional Passover seder, conducted for the first time by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who had made aliyah a few years back.  But shortly after this, the police, acting on complaints by neighbors about noisiness, shut down the school and Shavei had to find a new space.

In the spring of 2015, Barnaby Yeh, who was teaching KF Jews on behalf of the Sino-Judaic Institute, conducted a Passover seder with over 50 people in attendance.  The New York Times covered the Chinese and Hebrew seder. Shavei also held its own seder attended by another 30 Jews. Lastly, this past March, Shavei Israel brought five young KF Jewish women on aliyah to Israel, where they are now studying in Jerusalem. This brought the total number of Kaifeng’s Jews in Israel to 20.

Sadly and most unfortunately, these activities proved to be the zenith of our collective, albeit sometimes competitive, work.  Just two months later the community’s factions broke into intense conflict.  As always, access to foreigner guests and allegations about the misappropriation of communal funds were the issues at the fore. One particular family long-suspected by others of embezzlement responded by denouncing Barnaby Yeh and his followers for proselytizing Judaism to the authorities.  The latter group then went public with its charges online and in Points East.  Meanwhile—or possibly in response—a woman in the accused family applied for, and was granted, asylum in America on grounds of “religious persecution”. 

Whether it was the publicity given the SJI-sponsored seder or the request for political asylum, in any event the authorities responded harshly and vigorously.  They suspended all Jewish tours to Kaifeng, including one led by Rabbi Tokayer that was already in China; closed the SJI exhibits on the Kaifeng Jews in the Qing-Ming Millennial Park and the Municipal Museum; and expelled Barnaby Yeh. Individual Jewish tourists, specifically Mark Ellison, a Hong Kong-based financial analyst who visited Kaifeng in March 2016 confirmed all this and also that the Chinese language exhibit on the Kaifeng Jews at the Merchant Guildhall Museum had been removed.  Even the well, revered by the Kaifeng Jews as the last remaining part of their long-destroyed synagogue site, had been filled in and closed off. The Kaifeng Jews were prohibited from meeting collectively and the police even ordered individual families to remove the mezuzot from their doorposts.  Chris Buckley in his article “Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure,” The New York Times online: Sept 24, 2016, confirmed all this as well but mentioned that individual Jewish families still were gathering to observe Jewish holy days as best they could.  It was his opinion, also shared by other China experts, that the government’s crackdown in Kaifeng was part of the national campaign against unapproved religions, of which Judaism is one. 

Whatever its cause, the result has been the suspension, if not termination, of all external efforts aimed at educating the Kaifeng Jews and rehabilitating them as a functioning community.  Who knows when, or if, the authorities will relent?

Summary, Phase III

The third phase yields several observations:

1. The collective memories, legends, customs and family histories were validated as authentic aspects of a Kaifeng Jewish identity that had persisted from earlier times.

2. Scholarly and popular essays/books in Chinese have stimulated interest and provided content in the vernacular.

3. Christian evangelists brought the Kaifeng Jews together in small groupings, shifting identity from that of an isolated clan to the more communal perspective of a school. Whatever their motives, the ultimate effect of early Christian activity in Kaifeng in the 1990’s was the coalescence of a sense of group identity; the increasingly Jewish Shabbat and holiday gatherings continue to be a prominent feature of Chinese Jewish cultural identity today. Furthermore, regardless of the intent of these missionaries, the immediate effects of Kaifeng Jewish aliyah to Israel has been the integration of a marginalized Jewish group into mainstream Jewish orthodoxy there.

4. The attention shown to the community by the many foreign Jewish visitors and the educational work being done by Israeli and American Jewish organizations improved their own sense of self-esteem, deepened their Jewish identity and offered them prospects for improving their economic conditions, whether in China, Israel or elsewhere.

5.  Despite the current curtailment of Jewish life in Kaifeng, enough of the descendants have a strong Jewish identity and an interest in preserving it for future generations that it will challenging for the authorities to suppress.  With access, even controlled access, to the Internet; with more and more information available in the Chinese language on Jewish history, culture and Israel; with China’s overall Judeophile and Israel-friendly attitude; and with the ability of foreign Jews to visit Kaifeng and for Kaifeng Jews to travel abroad; the re-emergence of a small but thriving Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng remains a strong possibility. I would only add one caveat: that a community center/synagogue must be built.  For that to happen, the status of the Kaifeng Jews in China needs to be resolved once and for all before any proposal can move forward.

An Admission of Guilt 

Officially, China has been clear about its policy regarding the Kaifeng Jews since 1953: they are of Jewish descent but now are Han.  Unofficially, however, there have been numerous bureaucratic attempts to circumvent this policy, and that is where Jewish organizations like the Sino-Judaic Institute and Shavei Israel entered the picture.  As China opened up in the 1980s, we operated in Kaifeng just as we would in America or Israel.  We saw an urgent need; we had an opportunity; and we acted.  No permission was sought and, since most of our activities were tolerated, we assumed that we had the tacit approval of the authorities, or at least some of them. We believed that, given the history of the Kaifeng Jews since the early 20th century, those descendants who still maintained a sense of Jewish identity should have to opportunity to learn about their heritage and then decide if they wanted to pursue a more active Jewish life or remain content with being Han Chinese of Jewish descent.  So we set about to educate some of them and help them organize as a community.

But, in fact, both our organizations acted inappropriately.  First of all, it should be noted that Judaism is not an approved official religion in China.  It is fine for foreign Jews to practice it; not fine for Chinese citizens to do so.  Second, as per the 1953 document, the Chinese national government does not consider the Kaifeng descendants to be Jews in any way, only to be of Jewish ancestry. From their perspective, these “Han” Chinese were trying to practice a non-approved religion imported by foreign Jews. Where we believed we were simply educating a group of Jewish descendants to live both individually and collectively as Jews, some Chinese authorities saw yet another foreign organization working with Han Chinese citizens to promote an illegal religion and an impingement on China’s sovereignty.  In their eyes, we were guilty of the crime of proselytizing.  This in turn made both our work in Kaifeng and the Kaifeng community itself targets during the current campaign against unauthorized religions.

What we did was wrong.  Rather than working in Kaifeng under the radar (to the extent that this is possible to do in China), we ought to have sought out the appropriate authorities, clarified perspectives and plans, and gotten approval in advance.  Instead, we took the easy way in.

What can be done?  It is still not too late for SJI and Shavei Israel to make the case to Chinese authorities that we are not trying to convert Chinese people to Judaism; that we are simply trying to provide Jewish educational and cultural opportunities to interested Jewish descendants in Kaifeng. The Kaifeng Jews have a millennium of history and culture to which they are clinging and their situation is strikingly different from other Chinese citizens embracing new, unauthorized religions. One way out of the current impasse may be to give Henan province or the Kaifeng municipality a degree of autonomy on this issue. The Chinese national policy on the status of the Kaifeng Jews can remain what it is (if need be), but the national authorities should permit Henan and Kaifeng the flexibility to adapt things to fit the facts on the ground.  In other words: no recognition as a national minority, but recognition as a local minority.  This is what was done in June 2016 when the Indian state government of Maharashtra bestowed minority status on its tiny, ancient community of Jews, who number only 2466.  This official recognition by Maharashtra State, as opposed to the national Indian government, is important because it will help the Jewish community preserve its religious and cultural traditions, educational and community institutions, and its unique heritage on the Indian subcontinent.  If the Indian state of Maharashtra can do this, why not the Chinese province of Henan? 

It is time for us to come to an understanding about this tiny group and not let our differences taint good Jewish-Chinese relations. The powers that be have instituted the first official suppression of Jewish life in Chinese history—even if their intent was only to curtail apparent foreign missionizing.  However, the result is sad beyond words and we can only hope that it is a short-lived aberration.  Ideally, China should enable the Kaifeng Jewish descendants to continue to learn about their Jewish heritage even as they continue to live as Han Chinese—or it should let those who wish to live as Jews to go live in Israel.  Ideally, China should herald the fact that it has never persecuted its Jewish community much as it celebrates its having served as a refuge for European Jews fleeing the Nazis.  Ideally it should promote the historic Jewish presence in Kaifeng just as it does those in Shanghai and Harbin.  Only good would come from such a decision.  It would be an act of kindness for the Kaifeng Jews, economically beneficial for all of Kaifeng, and good for China as a whole in so many ways. 


 

Notes

I want to acknowledge the invaluable research particularly by Noam Urbach and Moshe Yehuda Bernstein that serve as the foundation for this article as well as the first-hand experiences and observations of Eric Rothberg and Barnaby Yeh.

i The Kaifeng Jews had been visited only sporadically in the mid 20th century prior to the founding of the PRC: David Brown in 1932, Harrison Forman in ‘38, by two Japanese officers in ‘40, by two journalists, Burke and Steele, in ‘46, and Joseph Buchholder in ‘48.

ii Urbach, “What Prevented the Reconstruction of the Chinese Synagogue? Kaifeng Jews between Revival and Obliteration,” in P. Kupfer, ed. Youtai—Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China, (Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang, 2008) p. 79, reports that the Jews were labeled “ren” or people as opposed to “zu” or nationality.

iii UPI correspondent Aline Mosby was the first in January 1980, while Kaifeng was still a closed city, followed by Micahel Weiskopf of the Washington Post in April 1982, Christopher Wren of the NYT and Tony Walker of the Sydney Moring Herald in May 1982, Stanley Oziewicz of the Toronto Globe and Mail in January 1983 and Michael Parks of the SF Examiner in February. All published articles on the Kaifeng Jews showing that they maintained a vestigial sense of ethnic identity. And this residual identity, of course, was reinforced by the visits by foreign guests.

iv Other SJI founders who visited Kaifeng included: Leo Gabow, who visited Kaifeng for the first time in 1982 and Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, who went to Kaifeng in 1983. His group met with members of the Shi, Zhao and Ai families.

v These events put a damper on SJI’s early activism and led to an initial focus on academic research and on the other Jewish communities in China. Only in more recent years, with the further opening up of China, has SJI returned to the activism of its earliest days.

vi Moshe Y. Bernstein, “The curious case of the Kaifeng Construction Office: the dialectics of multivocal discourse and ambiguous agency in the production of Sino-Judaic cultural heritage,” unpublished presentation at W.U.N. Workshop “The Uses of Culture in China”, 17.

vii Bob Davis, in a Wall Street Journal , 16 August 2011.

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Eckstein, Mathew. “Identity Discourse and the Chinese Jewish Descendants,” in Sino-Judaica: Occasional Papers of the Sino-Judaic Institute 3 (2000).

Pollak, Michael. Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire, (Philadelphia: JPS, 1980).

Urbach, Noam. “What Prevented the Reconstruction of the Chinese Synagogue? Kaifeng Jews between Revival and Obliteration,” in P. Kupfer, ed. Youtai—Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China, (Frankfort am Main: Peter Lang, 2008)

Xu Xin. “Chinese Policy Towards Judaism,” in Points East 19:1, pp. 1, 3-8, March 2004.

 

Rabbi Anson Laytner is the immediate past president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and long-time editor of its journal, Points East.

Eran Barzilay Spearheads New Shavei Israel Projects for Kaifeng Jews

Excerpted from the Shavei Israel website 19/02/2013:  http://www.shavei.org/communities/kaifeng_jews

By Brian Blum

 

Two years ago, following the devastating fire that ravished Israel’s Carmel mountain range, the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, decided it wanted to donate money to help rebuild the Yemin Orde Youth Village, which was at the epicenter of the fire. Eran Barzilay, a young Israeli, had been living in Kaifeng at the time studying Chinese at the local Henan University. On the community’s behalf, he approached Shavei Israel to see if the organization could facilitate the transfer of funds.

That meeting launched an on-going cooperation between Barzliay, Shavei and the Kaifeng community which today includes a number of significant projects: a regular newsletter about Jewish topics entirely in Chinese; a scholarship for Jews who speak some Chinese to maintain contact with the community in Kaifeng; and soon, the launch of a platform for live, interactive, virtual courses over the Internet on Judaism in Chinese…

Barzilay was an East Asian studies major in 2010 when he first headed to China. When he heard about the Kaifeng community, he was immediately attracted. “I wanted a place where I’d have an opportunity to go to synagogue and celebrate Shabbat with other Jews, while I was studying,” he says.

During his year in China, Barzliay became close with the community. When he subsequently came home to Israel, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Shavei Israel’s Rabbi Hanoch Avitzedek immediately recognized Barzilay’s potential. At the request of Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, who places great importance on assisting the Kaifeng Jews, the two began brainstorming on ways to enhance the community’s connection to Judaism.

A key tool has been the newsletter, which comes out twice a month and has published nearly 40 issues so far. The newsletter, which includes articles on Jewish law, the Parsha (weekly Torah portion), and holidays (the next issue turns the spotlight on the upcoming holiday of Purim), is a collaborative effort, with some articles written by community members in Kaifeng and some by Barzilay here in Israel. “The idea is to be a connection, a bridge between the Jews in Kaifeng and those who are now living in Israel.”

Barzilay is referring to the seven Kaifeng men who have been studying Judaism and Hebrew in Israel for the past two and a half years with Shavei Israel’s help. Barzilay has been assisting Shavei here too. For example, he will be accompanying six of the seven when they immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) later this week, the final step towards completing their formal return to Judaism and becoming officially recognized Israeli citizens. (The seventh, Hoshea Tony Liang, did so two weeks ago.)

Barzilay will then be the point person for navigating the Israeli government bureaucracy for the seven, setting them up with a long-term Hebrew ulpan (including housing) and helping them get settled as they begin their new lives in the Jewish state.

Shavei Israel’s scholarship project for the Kaifeng community has been an equally important part of Barzilay responsibilities and it has kept him quite busy looking for someone to fill the shoes of the first recipient, Shulamit Gershovich, who we’ve written about before. “It’s not so easy finding someone who either knows or is studying Chinese and who has the knowledge in Jewish subjects to teach the community,” Barzilay explains.

Gershovich ended her term in Kaifeng last summer, so in the meantime, Barzilay returned to celebrate the High Holy Days last year with the community. He was delighted to be back, particularly for the holiday of Sukkot, which comes at an auspicious point of the year in China, Barzilay explains.

On the very same day of the lunar calendar (Sukkot always begins with the full moon) falls the Chinese “Mid-Autumn Festival,” a national holiday when the many Chinese young people who travel to distant cities for work or school return home to be with their families. This makes it much easier for the Kaifeng Jews to come together without having to take an extra day off of work. About 60 Kaifeng Jews sat together under the sukka that Barzilay helped the community build (on the roof of one of the local Jewish school).

Barzilay relates that he was able to bring the “4 Species” for Sukkot to Kaifeng for the holiday “And it’s not so easy to get into China with a lulav!” he jokes, recalling certain suspicious customs officials. Other guests under the sukka included Shoshana Rebecca Li from Kaifeng who made aliyah from Kaifeng in 2006 and married Ami Emmanuel, also a new immigrant, albeit from the United States. The two were visiting Shoshana’s family for the holidays, allowing the entire community to coo over their baby boy, named Tekoa.

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by eating round moon cakes, in honor of its full moon start. Jews traditionally eat round challot at this time of year – coincidental?

While Barzilay’s work for Shavei Israel with the Kaifeng Jews is only part time, for him it’s much more that an occupation. “I believe that G-d guides everything,” he says. “I went to China and got to know this community and then I came back and got to know Shavei. I will keep on doing this no matter where I work in the future. This is a job for my soul.”

 

 

 

With your support, SJI can maintain its links with the Kaifeng Jewish descendants and support their efforts to regain their cultural heritage.