What a difference a year makes!
Last April, about 50 members of the renascent Jewish community of Kaifeng, China gathered in a hotel banquet room for a Passover seder. Barnaby Yeh, a Jewish Chinese American, led the seder in Hebrew and Chinese. Even a local city official attended. The unique event received worldwide attention after it was covered by The New York Times (6 April 2015).
But by this April, Barnaby Yeh is persona non grata in Kaifeng; the Jewish center has been shuttered; foreign Jewish tour groups are not permitted there; the Sino-Judaic Institute’s educational program has been suspended; security forces are keeping a vigilant eye on community members; and rumors have reached our ears that the authorities have removed all commemorative signage regarding the old Jewish neighborhood.
What has led to this drastic turn of events?
We can identify three possible reasons for the crackdown. First is the seder itself, or rather the international attention that it drew. Since the opening-up of China in the 1980s, Jewish life in Kaifeng has operated best when it has gone unnoticed. This is because Chinese officials at various levels are divided about how to handle the tiny community.
On the one hand, the local government wants to encourage a revival of the Jewish community in order to stimulate tourism and improve the local economy. On the other hand, the United Front, which operates both locally, provincially and nationally, adheres to a 1953 central government directive that regards the Chinese Jews as part of the Han nationality and appears to seek their full assimilation into the dominant culture.
According to this rationale, the foreign media attention drew the ire of the latter group, which then moved to suppress continued expressions of Jewish communal cultural life. However, since we are not privy to the thinking of the United Front, this remains only a theory. There have been dozens of articles written in newspapers all over the world about the Kaifeng Jews without precipitating such a harsh reaction. Why is this story different from all other stories?
A second factor to consider is the recent immigration of five women to Israel in March of this year, accompanied by significant coverage in the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish media. This too could have enflamed those authorities in China who prefer to see Jewish identity wither in Kaifeng who might fear that the immigration of these women, the first group brought to Israel by the organization Shavei Israel in seven years, would perpetuate a renewed sense of Jewish identity among the Kaifeng Jews even if only to seek a better life in Israel. However, it should be noted that the suppression of Jewish life in Kaifeng began well before this event and, although it may have contributed to the continued crackdown, it should also be pointed out that back in October 2009, seven men from the community came to live in Israel without any reprisals back in Kaifeng.
But the most plausible explanation for the crackdown is that the authorities were reacting to a claim for political asylum, on grounds of religious persecution, filed by a Kaifeng Jewish woman in an American court. In this scenario, the authorities were rightfully furious by this specious charge and decided to punish the entire community for the action of this one individual, thinking that it would be best to return to a strict adherence to the 1953 directive rather than continue with the more open policy that had been allowed to flourish. Had the government not tolerated a revival of Jewish life in the first place, this individual would never have gotten the idea of seeking asylum in America based on her being persecuted as a Jew. Hers was a deed that provided the United Front with the opening they needed to return to the pre-1980 status quo.
Whatever the actual reason for the current suppression of Jewish cultural life in Kaifeng, it is time to break the silence about it. There are those who rightly point out that what is occurring in Kaifeng is probably part of the government’s overall crackdown on religions and dissent. They argue that the best strategy is simply to wait for things to change in China. That may be true in general, but with regards to the Kaifeng Jews, their very survival as Jews is at stake.
By the time foreign Jews were again able to visit Kaifeng beginning in the 1980s, all that members of the community had was a residual sense of Jewish identity. They had been without a rabbi or teacher since the early 1800s, prayed for and preyed upon by various sorts of Christian missionaries, and visited only intermittently by well-meaning Western Jews. They had no synagogue, no Torah, no texts, no school. They were on the very brink of extinction, or rather, assimilation. But in the “New China”, they had access to Chinese-speaking Jewish teachers, to texts in Chinese both printed and online, and to numerous Jewish visitors. All this sparked a revival of communal spirit and identity — but the recovery is too fragile just to wait out the current crisis.
What has China to fear from 500 to 1,000 Kaifeng Jews? They are a drop in the bucket of China’s population. If they all were to immigrate en masse to Israel, their absence wouldn’t even be noticed. But that is not the ideal. 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 enable the Kaifeng Jews to continue to learn about their Jewish heritage even as they continue to live as Han Chinese. Only good would come from it, for the Kaifeng Jews, for all of Kaifeng and for China as a whole.
Rabbi Anson Laytner is a past president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and editor of its journal Points East.