Since last year, the Chinese government has strongly restricted the spiritual activities of Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, a city in central China that has been home to a small Jewish community for a millennium.
Residents in Kaifeng have been barred from gathering together to commemorate Passover or any other Jewish holiday, organizations that help foster Jewish rediscovery have been shut down and signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past have been removed from public places, The New York Times reports.
The crackdown is part of the government’s campaign to restrict collective gathering of religious groups. In April of this year, Xi Jinping called for stronger efforts in managing and enforcing China’s rules on religious affairs, maintaining “the principle of religious independence and self-administration,” and helping religious groups foster Chinese nationalism and “adapt to the socialist society.” He also emphasized that religious groups should not influence government affairs, but should be in line with Chinese laws and helping China succeed.
The reason for the Chinese government’s specific restriction of the Kaifeng Jews is unknown, but some suggest religion as a potential factor. China has five state-sponsored religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism — Judaism is not one of them. In a recent New York Times article on the Kaifeng Jews, one Kaifeng businessman felt that the restrictions are because of a “fear about religion, not just us Jews.” Another Jewish man in Kaifeng voiced a similar view, stating, “[D]on’t make us out to be political… We just want recognition as Jews.”
According to the New York Times, of Kaifeng’s 4.5 million people, only about 1,000 claim Jewish heritage. The city’s Jewish population is one of the oldest established Jewish communities in China. Although their origin is unknown, one popular speculation, according to the Sino-Judaic Institute, is that the Song dynasty emperor invited them into China. In the 1990s, the Kaifeng Jews experienced a religious revival, including a rise in classes, services, and migrations to Israel. In a New York Times interview, researcher Moshe Yehuda Bernstein discusses that Kaifeng Jews have navigated being both Chinese and Jewish for years.
The crackdown on Kaifeng Jews comes in the midst of growing China-Israel relations. Recently, China and Israel discussed a free-trade deal between the two countries. State media outlets also paid their respects to Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, who passed away on September 28th.
China Foreign Ministry expresses condolence over death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres pic.twitter.com/ZGNknEbbnD
— CCTVNEWS (@cctvnews) September 28, 2016
Judaism has a not quite so long, but still important history in Shanghai. During World War II, Shanghai served as a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing the violence in Europe, as detailed in a recently-released website, a photo exhibition in Dallas, and of course, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The Jewish Memorial Park in Shanghai’s Qingpu District, which opened in 2015, is dedicated to nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution. For more of their story, check out this What’s on Weibo post.
As Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, concludes its festivities, let’s hope for peace.
By Abby Ordillas
[Images via Sina]