China's tiny Jewish community in fear as Beijing erases its history

The graveyard of a Jewish family in a cemetery in Kaifeng - Daily Telegraph
The graveyard of a Jewish family in a cemetery in Kaifeng - Daily Telegraph

For this year’s Hanukkah, Amir is lighting menorah candles and reciting blessings to celebrate the holiday’s eight nights, as many Jews are around the world.

But he does so in secret, worried that Chinese officials will come around – as they often do on religious occasions – to enforce a ban against Judaism, pressuring him to renounce his faith. Sometimes, he’s even called in for interrogations.

“Every time we celebrate, we are scared,” said Amir, not his real name as he asked not to be identified over worries of retaliation. "Whatever we do, we’re always very careful to make sure the authorities don’t find out.”

Since 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has waged a harsh campaign against foreign influence and unapproved religion, part of a push to ‘Sinicise’ faith – ripping down church crosses and mosque onion domes, and detaining more than a million Muslims in the western Xinjiang region.

Kaifeng is a historic former capital of China. Jews settled here over a thousand years ago but there is now little evidence of their presence - Daily Telegraph
Kaifeng is a historic former capital of China. Jews settled here over a thousand years ago but there is now little evidence of their presence - Daily Telegraph

As well as Christians and Muslims, Mr Xi’s suppression has hit China’s tiny congregation of Jews, whose ancestors settled more than a millennium ago along the Yellow River in Kaifeng, then the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty.

That such a small group can attract the Communist Party’s ire shows how far the crackdown has spread. Only about 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim Jewish heritage, and of those, only around 100 or are practising Jews, experts say – barely a splash in China’s sea of 1.4 billion. Even at its peak in the 1500s, the community only numbered around 5,000.

“It’s government policy – China doesn’t want to recognise us as Jews,” one man, who dreams of training as a rabbi in Israel, told the Telegraph. “Their goal is to make sure the next generation doesn’t have any Jewish identity.”

At home, he teaches everything he knows to his child, just as his forebears – most likely merchants from Persia – did for generations.

In that way, Kaifeng’s Jewish heritage survived dynasties, wars, natural disasters and the Cultural Revolution, when many destroyed genealogical records to hide their lineage. It has also helped them manage without a rabbi for more than 150 years.

They are fighting to keep their history alive, even though “asserting their desires to be connected with their Jewish heritage falls afoul of the official [Chinese] position on unauthorised religions,” said Anson Laytner, a retired rabbi and president of the Sino-Judaic Institute.

The graveyard of a Jewish family in a cemetery in Kaifeng - Daily Telegraph
The graveyard of a Jewish family in a cemetery in Kaifeng - Daily Telegraph

Even for the five faiths that the Party does recognise and regulate – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism – pressures abound. Buddhist temples, for instance, are allowed to display portraits of Mr Xi but not of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Chinese authorities are also concerned about undue foreign influence if the Kaifeng Jewish community is allowed to build links with Jews abroad.

“In terms of numbers, it’s so insignificant, but in terms of potential attention, it’s much, much bigger,” said Noam Urbach, an Israeli academic who has studied the Kaifeng Jews. Their existence can “raise a lot of attention among the international Jewish community.”

In Kaifeng, stones engraved as far back as 1489 with the community’s beliefs and ancestry that used to mark a 12th-century synagogue have disappeared from a public exhibit.

An ancient well, believed to be the synagogue’s last ruins, has likewise vanished under a cloak of cement. The authorities have also torn down the city’s few Hebrew signs that once marked the Teaching Torah Lane.

In that same lane, a spot where a few dozen Jews – some of whom were government officials – used to meet for services is now plastered in propaganda about China’s “management of religious affairs.” They include reminders that Judaism is prohibited. A security camera is directed at the entrance.

A handful of schools that taught Hebrew and Judaism – established by foreign Jews visiting Kaifeng – have been forced to shutter. Displays in a museum and historic merchant guild hall that documented the history of Jews in the city have also disappeared in favour of large pictures of Mr Xi.

The crackdown is so intense that Kaifeng residents are afraid to dine together in public. “It’s a small place,” one Jewish man said. “Restaurant managers know that we are the Jews, and they will report us to the authorities.”

A booklet about Passover, written in both Chinese & Hebrew  - Daily Telegraph
A booklet about Passover, written in both Chinese & Hebrew - Daily Telegraph

Across the city, the remaining trace of Jewish heritage appears to be two tombstones with the star of David and epitaphs in Chinese and Hebrew – but even this, they fear, will soon be gone.

Yet the Jews in Kaifeng are remarkably resilient, and have found ways to keep their faith alive underground.

Each week, meetings are held in secret to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.  Many don’t eat pork, though keeping fully kosher is risky and expensive. But for holidays, they pool money for kosher meat and wine procured through a network of friendly intermediaries.

At home, residents decorate with photos of Israel, stars of David and traditional Passover seder plates, and serve guests tea in jars that used to hold yahrzeit candles lit in memory of the dead.

One man flung open a cabinet revealing a prayer shawl and a collection of kippahs, a head-covering for men. Most proudly pronounce Israel with a Hebrew accent.

Unable to obtain religious materials, they buy Bibles and read the Old Testament – more or less the same content as the Torah – and disregard the New Testament.

They also pass around dog-eared pamphlets with translations compiled during a brief revival when Jewish scholars, rabbis and tourists flocked to Kaifeng as China opened up in the 1990s.

Now, “no print shop dares to help us copy these,” said one resident.

Groups like Mr Laytner’s Sino-Judaic Institute and Shavei Israel had previously set up centres to teach Hebrew and Jewish history and traditions, and helped some to emigrate. But both groups were expelled a few years ago, among the first targets of the government crackdown.

Mr Laytner does not consider the suppression to be specifically anti-Semitic – a sentiment experts say is unusual in China. The country sheltered thousands of European Jews fleeing the Nazis, and today, many Chinese view Jews favourably, typecasting them as an affluent bunch in influential positions – bankers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, film directors.

“In fact, the history works in their favour, because Jews were treated like garbage all over the world, but the Chinese accepted them,” said Moshe Yehuda Bernstein, a researcher in Australia who has written on the Kaifeng Jews.

“It’s something the Chinese could be proud of, yet recently in this clampdown on unofficial religions, they’ve taken away all historical evidence of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng, which is absurd.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping - Sebastian Vivallo
Chinese President Xi Jinping - Sebastian Vivallo

China’s ministry of foreign affairs denied the “so-called suppression,” instead highlighting that it had once welcomed Jewish refugees in a written response to the Telegraph.

Kaifeng Jews hope Israel will support them, though they aren't considered Jews under Israeli law – after generations of inter-marriage, Judaism has not been consistently passed down the maternal line. Mr Laytner also doubts that Israel wants to jeopardise Sino-Israeli relations “for the sake of a couple of thousand people."

Indeed Israel has deepened trade ties with China over recent years. The Israeli embassy didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

But while those in Kaifeng insist they’re proud to be Chinese and only want to preserve their history and traditions, the crackdown has been very painful.

“We love our country; we’re not criminals; we just don’t eat pork,” said Amir, blinking away tears. “Why do we have to practice our faith in secret, and live floating on the fringes of society? It’s really hard to bear.”