China is probably one of the last places where one would expect to find the descendants of Jews who lived almost a millennium ago. But somehow a small community of Chinese Jews, who are thought to be descended from Middle Eastern merchants, has endured in Henan province until the present day.
Whether it will endure any longer is the subject of an article published by The New York Times on September 24, which reports that the “Kaifeng Jews” have suddenly and unexpectedly been targeted by the Chinese government.
Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was located on the heavily-traveled Silk Road. As a result, the city was a hub for foreign traders. China’s east coast is no stranger to Judaism and is home to four historically Jewish communities, according to the Sino-Judaic Institute. Shanghai, as I previously wrote, was famously one of only two ports in the world that accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe during World War II.
While Judaism isn’t one of China’s five state-sanctioned religions, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the minuscule portion of the population that still adheres to the faith. Most of the Kaifeng Jews still living actually have little practical knowledge of Judaism. The city’s last rabbi reportedly died in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In recent decades, the community’s connection to Judaism is primarily cultural: individuals self-identified as Kaifeng Jews usually do not eat pork and often only know of their Jewish ancestry from old family stories about relatives who went to a synagogue or because of a family name marking them as one of the community’s eight historically Jewish clans (the names were conferred by a Ming Dynasty emperor).
In recent decades Kaifeng has had a sort of Jewish revival. Jewish organizations — offering everything from religious instruction to the opportunity to migrate to Israel— established themselves in the community to connect its residents to their cultural and religious history. Some began studying the Torah and the traditions of Judaism in earnest. The government didn’t seem to care, according to news reports, until the Kaifeng Jews began attracting foreign media attention.
Some Kaifeng residents say the government took action after a Jewish woman from their community won asylum to the United States by claiming she was the victim of “religious persecution.”
And now it appears that the government – perhaps in retaliation to the bad PR? — wants to obliterate any of the small traces of Jewish history that still exist in Kaifeng. A stone inscription marking the site of Kaifeng’s old synagogue was recently removed by city officials, who also prohibited groups from gathering to celebrate Jewish holidays. Some of the city’s Jewish descendants have told reporters they fear their actions and conversations are being monitored by the government.
What’s interesting is that many of the Kaifeng Jews said that they don’t necessarily see this as an act of antisemitism; rather, it may be a message to emphasize that the Communist Party’s political domination cannot be challenged by foreign organizations, especially those affiliated with unsanctioned religious groups.
But it seems that Kaifeng’s Jewish residents aren’t easily intimidated.
“Judaism,” as one man told the New York Times, “is all about endurance.”