Monday, December 14, 2020

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

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
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.

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 have been removed from the spot where they once marked a 12th-century synagogue.

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. Exhibits 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."


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