What do Israeli Jews think of Kaifeng?

Until recently, the Jews of the Chinese provincial city of Kaifeng were well received by the city government. It was hoped that they would attract more tourists. Now the signs point to repression.

Up until a year ago, only good words could be found for each other: on the one hand, an official from the local city government who exuded the hope that with the symbolism of Kaifeng, located in Henan Province, as "Little Israel", investors from the Holy Land and the Lure the USA to this Chinese provincial town, and on the other hand the descendants of a once flourishing Jewish community in the Middle Kingdom, who believed that the Chinese government is now tolerant enough to allow if not a Jewish religion, then at least a (on the back burner) Jewish cultural life.

Waited a year

But things turned out differently, as so often in China - and yet not entirely unexpected. News from Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1126), once an important trading center on the Silk Road, made people sit up and take notice: Since the summer of last year they have been foreign group travelers (mostly Jewish cultural tourists ) forbidden to visit the city, in which supposedly 500 to 1000 descendants of the once 5000 members live, live. Furthermore, the historical mikwaot, the traditional ritual baths, were filled with concrete and access to the famous Jewish steles in the city museum was blocked. - According to rumors, several English-language signs reminding of the remains of the Jewish quarter are said to have been removed. In addition, the only Jewish learning center of the Shavei Israel organization, which tries to establish contact with "forgotten" Jewish communities around the world and their possible return to Israel, was closed. In contrast to the Israeli chief rabbinate, which does not recognize the descendants of the Kaifeng community as Jews (because they justify their being Jewish on their father's side), Shavei Israel has been trying for years to enable Kaifeng Jews to immigrate to Israel. In the past and until recently, the Jerusalem organization succeeded in doing this feat in several and widely documented cases.

Rabbi Anson Laytner, the recently resigned director of the California-based Sino-Judaic Institute, waited more than a year before he went public with his bad news. In a letter entitled “Mea culpa” he justified the break of his silence by saying that his patience had expired with a further wait for an improvement in the situation. «I hope I made the right decision. Only time will tell. "

Last year everything looked harmonious, almost too beautiful by Chinese standards: The New York Times reported on April 6 of a sociable Seder evening celebrated by foreign guests together with descendants of the Jewish community and in the presence of a local official. “Because there are only Jews in Kaifeng, this is a very special case. The government is aware of this and supports it. The Jewish affair here is a matter of history, not religion, ”the official had confidently declared, speaking of the fact that the authorities were planning to build a Jewish community center and museum, with a synagogue, library, kindergarten and one Snack bar. However, according to the employee of the city government, his people do not know "what the Jews eat". As if that still matters now.

The big question for those affected and for foreign observers is: What caused this sudden change? Why does the government consider it necessary to take such drastic measures and to put even the descendants of the Jewish community under strict observation and to limit contact with foreigners? There are various reasons, including the growing interest of the Western media in the “Jewish Kaifeng”.

Fear of questions

While Shanghai or Harbin have long been part of the standard program of tourists interested in Jewish history - Shanghai was considered a safe place for refugees from Nazi Germany, while Harbin was one of the largest centers for Russian Jews - Kaifeng is more important for people with a pronounced historical curiosity, also because there is not much to see there for ordinary visitors in search of Jewish traces. More tourists means more money, but also the risk that more questions, sometimes critical ones, will be asked. And the Chinese government, it has not only recently become known, is reluctant to see foreign countries making a fuss about religious issues, as this is viewed as interference in domestic affairs.

Anson Laytner himself suspects that the case of a descendant of the Jewish community who recently traveled to the USA was the immediate cause of the current climate of oppression. The woman had sought political asylum in a court on the grounds that there was religious persecution in China. Such accusations are not to be trifled with in China. Even if Judaism does not fall under the five official religions, the government repeatedly emphasizes that religious freedom is guaranteed for everyone in the country and that such an accusation is therefore completely grotesque and harms the country's reputation. With this tough approach, Beijing, which is currently facing many accusations of suppressing religious currents, possibly wanted to set an example.

It may also be that the reason for this change in climate has nothing to do with the issue itself, but rather with a power struggle of groups within the Communist Party - between those who want more openness to foreign countries and others who are China want to isolate themselves from outside influence. Such a dispute, fought under the belt of the Jews of Kaifeng, would not be new in this place. The “left” who are suspicious of foreign countries have always declared that the Kaifeng Jews are “quite ordinary” Han Chinese.

Jews or Chinese?

For once, they are not alone with this opinion, as the first Israeli ambassador to China, Zev Suffot, said on the occasion of a visit to Henan in 1992: “To claim that you are Jews is absurd; there is nothing between these people and Judaism. " Peony, the heroine from the novel of the same name by Pearl S. Buck, had already reasoned in a similar way: “Today even the memory of her origins has disappeared. They [the Kaifeng Jews] are Chinese. " However, and this must be true: From the outside, it should not be up to anyone to answer the question of preserving identity or assimilation for an entire group. Even if this has nothing to do with religion anymore.