Although China’s detention of up to a million Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims in Xinjiang has attracted the attention of the world’s media and garnered condemnations of world leaders, another religious group in China says they too are being prosecuted.
China’s Kaifeng Jews are afraid to publicly gather or speak openly about the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) surveillance of them. Though they are a tiny, isolated community of about 1,000 people, their concerns echo other groups’ fears that China is establishing a police state around them, violating their rights in the process.
American Jewish leaders seeking to foster the Kaifeng Jews’ faith have had their efforts stymied and their projects shut down, including one to rebuild a historic synagogue that initially tied the small Kaifeng Jewish community together. Some Jewish leaders insist there is a crackdown, but the reality appears to be slightly more complicated and relates to China President Xi Jinping’s broader strategy of tightly controlling religious expression and closing off communities to foreigners.
In ushering in a ‘New Era’ for China, Xi Jinping is quietly ensuring the only influencer to Chinese citizens’ values and practices is the CCP by remaking China into a surveillance state and cracking down on any potentially dissident group.
One of the ‘New Era’s emerging victims are the Kaifeng Jews, who risk losing touch with their millennia-long history with Judaism.
The Kaifeng Jews’ Unique History in China
Sketchings of the Kaifeng synagogue (Moshe Yehuda Bernstein)
The Kaifeng Jews are China’s only native Jewish population; 1,000 in a country of 1.4 billion people and can trace their history back to the Silk Road.
In the 9th century CE, Persian Jewish merchants arrived in Kaifeng as traders. China was then ruled by the Northern Song Dynasty who established the city of Kaifeng as its capital, making it one of the region’s biggest trading hubs.
There, the merchants settled and eventually married into local Han Chinese families. Though the families kept maintained their Jewish faith and practices alive, they also included local Chinese customs and practices. After several generations, they became a distinct group: Kaifeng Jews.
In 1163, the Kaifeng Jews, who were economically prosperous thanks to the burgeoning Silk Road trade, constructed a synagogue to practice their faith and create a communal hub: they called it the “Temple Respecting the Scriptures of the Way.”
The community was widely accepted, but “their biggest problems were the Yellow River, which destroyed their synagogue--along with the rest of Kaifeng—multiple times,” said Anson Laytner, president and founder of the Sino Judaic Institute (SJI).
The synagogue was destroyed by floods and wars, but was rebuilt every time: over ten times in total.
In the 1700s, a combination of economic woes and a closed door policy began to isolate the Kaifeng Jews from the rest of the world. By the early 1700s, trade from the silk road began to dry up, as did the prosperity of the city of Kaifeng. The ruling Qing Dynasty also instituted an isolationist Closed Door Policy, shutting China off to foreigners.
This double-punch to the Kaifeng Jewish community saw their economic prospects dwindle and their ability to connect with other Jewish groups foreclose.
In 1849, another disastrous flood from the Yellow River destroyed their synagogue, and they could not afford to rebuild it this time. Around the same time, their last remaining rabbi died without mentoring a successor. With their spiritual leader dead and much of their religious space and documents washed away, the Kaifeng Jews reverted to an oral tradition of passing down their beliefs and practices to descendents.
The Harbin Synagogue in China (The Jewish Community of China)
Fast forward to the late 20th century, when China’s leader Deng Xiaoping instituted an Open Door Policy to China to liberalize its economy. Academics, spiritual leaders and tourists began streaming into Kaifeng to reconnect with the formerly isolated Jewish community, which by now was marred by divisions and seemed out of touch with Judaism.
Foreign religious leaders began working to rebuild the ties that once connected Kaifeng’s Jews, but also met the ire of the CCP, who began obstructing construction projects and prohibiting worshippers from gathering to take part in holidays.
The Current Crackdown, Explained
Many Jews in Kaifeng and religious leaders, like Anson Laytner and Michael Freund of the Israel-based Shavei Israel, claim China is cracking down on its native Jewish minority, though this claim is contested.
When speaking to his reasons for getting involved with the Jewish community in Kaifeng, Laytner told Al Bawaba, “like other people, I was fascinated by their story of survival and impressed by their commitment to their Jewish identity even when they only had memories to keep that identity alive. That's why SJI decided to get involved in helping them to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.”
SJI went about building a Jewish school in Kaifeng, but their biggest project was to rebuild the synagogue, which had been lost to the Yellow River. The ambitious project was initially approved by the local Construction Office, and planning began accordingly.
Jewish Kaifeng resident Li Jing (Shavei Israel)
In 2010 as well, Shavei Israel established its own office in Kaifeng to provide the community with a space “to provide an authentically Jewish environment where the Chinese Jews could learn about Jewish history, culture and values,” writes Michael Freund, president of Shavei Israel.
“Activities ranged from studying Hebrew to Jewish cooking classes to learning about ancient Jewish texts and traditions. Some drew dozens of people, and Jewish holiday celebrations proved to be especially popular,” he continues.
Laytner too, told Al Bawaba that “Jewishly, they don't know much but are curious and eager to learn.”
Part of what motivated Shavei Israel and the SJI to restart an active Jewish life in Kaifeng was to offset the efforts of Christian missionaries, who Laytner argued were “trolling for converts,” in the region.
However, once China’s central government learned of the plan to rebuild the synagogue and of Shavei Israel’s own efforts, it was all shut down. Public Jewish gatherings on holidays were prohibited, signs that contained Hebrew were taken down and exhibits depicting Kaifeng’s Jewish history disappeared. Kaifeng is a relatively poor region of China, and Kaifeng's Jews are unable to afford building their own communal spaces. When the foreign-funded efforts were stopped, nearly every public effort to rebuild the communtiy's ties to Judaism ended.
Activists and religious organizers decried these moves as part of China’s larger project to secularize its people. “We believe, but can't know for sure, that the suppression of Jewish life in Kaifeng is connected with the crackdown on unauthorized Christian and Muslim grassroots activities,” Laytner claimed.
But the story is more complicated than that: China’s crackdown seems to be primarily against foreign influence rather than the Kaifeng Jews themselves.
China’s state-of-the-art facial recognition on display (AFP/FILE)
“In essence,” said Jordan Paper, professor emeritus at York University, “there is no crackdown on Chinese Jews, who are not recognized as Jews by Israel, and thus, not by China.”
“The new law on religion had led to a crackdown on foreign Jewish missionaries and on foreign money funneled for this purpose, as the law also ‘cracks down’ on the same with regard to foreign Evangelical and Salafist Missionaries,” he added.
In February 2018, China began implementing its new laws on religion, which regulate the practice and public organization of recognized religions with dozens of new requirements. Article 5 of the new law states that, “Religious groups, religious institutions, places of religious activities and religious affairs are not subject to the control of foreign forces.” This new law strengthens a pre-existing law in China’s own constitution, which states that “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
Although Laytner disagrees with Paper’s designation of SJI as foreign missionaries since the SJI “are responding to people who want to reconnect with their religious, cultural heritage,” Laytner concedes that from the standpoint of the CCP, there is no difference between him and the Christian missionaries seeking to convert Han Chinese citizens.
In other words, the crackdown doesn’t seem to be specifically targeting Chinese Jews because they are Jewish, but because foreign groups have become more involved in the community—groups the CCP view as potential threats.
Xin Jinping’s New Era and Total Control
For the CCP, cracking down on foreigners working to reshape the Kaifeng community, is about control.
“Xi has said that religion is a major issue, and when he speaks, that has consequences,” said a local Kaifeng businessman who reportedly supports the revival of Judaism in Kaifeng but wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. “They don’t understand us, and worry that we’re being used,” he continued.
Though it may allow some small charitable acts made towards the Kaifeng Jews, once it becomes public, the CCP shuts it down.
“Anytime it seemed to cross the line of publicity, that’s when there always would be a pushback against the Chinese Jews,” Moshe Yeduha Bernstein, an Australia-based expert on the Kaifeng Community, told the New York Times.
From the CCP’s standpoint, allowing organizations to foster and reshape the identity of a group of Han Chinese, who are not officially recognized to be Jewish, also allows these organizations to siphon control from the central Chinese government.
“The whole policy is very tight now,” Guo Yan, the curator of Kaifeng’s local museum relayed a reporter. “China is sensitive about foreign activities and interference.”
This has been happening nearly everywhere in China.
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Xi Jinping has been ushering in a ‘New Era’ for China, one which seeks to build new trade partnerships with over 70 countries in the world and cement China as the dominant world economy. Part of the ‘New Era’ too, is a massive, sprawling surveillance state that closely monitors and polices potentially dissident communities.
Since assuming office in 2012, Jinping has been instituting a wide range of policies aimed at shaping China's people into 'model citizens,' whose loyalty lies primarily with the CCP and who uphold a stringent social order.
In Xinjiang, this policing has been the most obvious: China has been locking up Muslims by the thousands in massive concentration camps. Their every purchase is tracked and logged, their every public movement documented. Towns and cities in Xinjiang appear empty as residents fear interrogations and detentions from Communist Party officials. Tibetans, viewed as another potentially deviant group, have been living in virtual lockdown since 2011.
Throughout all of China, peoples' actions and conversations are tracked and tallied as part of China’s new dystopian social credit system that quantifies their loyalty and trustworthiness into a single ranking. Those whose rank dips below the level of acceptability are denied loans, rents, and some are even barred from taking public transportation or leaving the country.
Jordan Paper told Al Bawaba that, “the Chinese Jews are treated no differently than any other citizens of China.” On a basic level, he is right; they are treated like everybody else, which is to say they are being heavily surveilled like most other Chinese citizens, though they are surveilled more intensely thanks to the public foreign aid they have received.
The Kaifeng Jews are wrapped up in Jinping's 'New Era' of surveillance, and one particular consequence for them is that foreign-funded efforts to rebuild their link to Judaism is being shut down.
Members of the Kaifeng Jewish community fear their calls and communications with the outside world are being monitored by the CCP, and are self-censoring as a way to protect themselves. Residents are fearful of speaking to journalists or making public any grievances they may maintain with the government. They are reportedly being stopped in the streets and interrogated by police, creating an atmosphere of fear and isolation.
Although their claims to Judaism are ignored by China and Israel, the local community continues to practice its faith to the extent they are allowed, and efforts continue to link them with their history.
“We are working on trying to get the Chinese government to recognize the unique status of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants and to allow them to practice Judaism as they wish. This is proceeding at a glacial pace,” said Laytner.
“We are also considering having some Kaifeng Jews take an intensive Judaism course abroad and then having them return to Kaifeng as informal teachers. Lastly, we try to have foreign tourists visit Kaifeng and meet with individuals there to maintain links, keep their spirits up and support their work.”
The Kaifeng Jews will do what they have done for centuries before; persist through the hardship and adapt to the obstacles, whether it is caused by a overwhelming flood that washes away their history, or a sprawling, state-of-the-art surveillance state that monitors their every movement.
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