Chinese authorities crack down on tiny Jewish community

Study center serving Kaifeng’s 1,000 Jews closed by authorities, public events canceled, report says

Some members of China's Jewish community in Kaifeng on the first night of Hanukkah, December 6, 2015. (Shavei Israel)
Some members of China's Jewish community in Kaifeng on the first night of Hanukkah, December 6, 2015. (Shavei Israel)

Over the past few months, Chinese authorities have gradually closed down the few Jewish organizations in the city of Kaifeng, and the few hundred people who claim Jewish ancestry reportedly have been forced to celebrate, learn and pray in private.

Communist China has five authorized state religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. However, since the 1980s Judaism was unofficially tolerated. For some unknown reason, this quiet acceptance has been revoked, according to a report Saturday in The New York Times.

Last April, some 50 members of the Kaifeng Jewish community gathered to celebrate Passover, and in December, a few dozen Jews celebrated the start of the Hanukkah festival by lighting the traditional menorah.

Now, the study center has been closed, all public signs of Jewish history in the city have been removed, international Jewish organizations have been stifled, and an ancient well, which is believed to be the last remnant of an ancient Synagogue, has been buried under rubble.

“Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people,” Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, which seeks to strengthen ties to the descendants of Jews in communities around the world, said in December.

“After centuries of assimilation, a growing number of the Kaifeng Jews in recent years have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity.”

The crackdown is happening at a time when Israel and China are strengthening their economic and political ties. The two countries recently signed a visa deal, encouraging travel between the two countries. And last week China sent an official to send greetings and support to former President Shimon Peres, who is hospitalized after suffering a stroke, and his family.

Scholars believe the Kaifeng Jewish community was founded in the 8th or 9th century by Persian and Iraqi Jewish traders along the Silk Road. At its height, during the Ming Dynasty, from the 14th to 17th centuries, it numbered some 5,000 strong, with a synagogue, rabbi, educational institutions and a cemetery.

Over time, intermarriage and conversion to both Islam and Christianity weakened the community, and by the mid-19th century the formal group had largely disappeared, although descendants of the Jewish families, identifiable by surnames granted in the middle ages, retained some Jewish identity and customs.

Today the community is estimated to number around 1,000 people who identify as being of Jewish descent. Of those, a few hundred are thought to be actively involved in the community.

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