The Changing Status of the Kaifeng Jews

The status and identity of the Kaifeng Jews has progressed through a number of historical stages: the formative years, the open door era, and the period from around the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel down to 2015, and the present situation.

Phase I: The Formative Years                                                                                  

The period running from shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic until China opened the doors of Kaifeng again to western visitors in the 1980s is important in terms of establishing a baseline identity.

Between 1949 and 1980, the Kaifeng (KF) Jews had been visited by only two foreigners.i But this did not mean that nothing was happening. Quite the contrary!

In 1952, two delegates from KF represented the Jewish community in the National Day celebrations in Beijing. They met PM Zhou Enlai and the People’s Daily called Jews one of 46 ethnic groups attending the banquet. Delegates requested that they be recognized as a national minority.ii  In the census of that same year, many KF Jews self-identified as Jews and their residence registration booklet and ID cards marked them as such. The local government accepted their claim and never challenged their identity.

In 1953, the local United Front asked Central United Front if it should recognize Jews as an ethnic group. In an official document published on June 8th, the central government officially denied the KF Jews ethnic minority status based on the five objective (i.e. Stalinist) criteria they used and instead declared them to be Han.  The final decision that “Kaifeng Jewry should be treated as a part of the Han nationality” was qualified by the caveat that the authorities “should take the initiative to be more caring for them in various activities and educate the local Han population not to discriminate against or insult them. This will gradually ease away the differences they might psychologically or emotionally feel exists between them and the Han” (Xu 2004, 6).  This document continues to this day to be the defining document regarding the status of the KF Jews. Over the years the central government’s attitude towards the Kaifeng Jews has wavered between denial and tolerance.

But while all this was going on, some Kaifeng Jews didn’t eat pork and were granted an extra ration of mutton like the Hui Muslims; they cherished the well at the former synagogue site—and their local identity papers still identified them as Jews.

1957 saw two foreign visitors: the Czech sinologist Timoteus Pokora and the Canadian sinologist René Goldman (who then was living in Poland). The latter’s account is telling about how the government managed the issue during this period:

In the course of this visit, two of us had to be quite persistent in our entreaties with the city Cadres before they acknowledged that indeed the Kaifeng Jews existed…They drove us to visit one such family which still lived in the ancient lane of the Chinese Jews…We were received by an elderly gentleman surnamed Li and his wife: unfortunately, because of the presence of the Cadre, the discussion was formal and reserved… when upon leaving the house I discreetly whispered to the old gentleman that two of us were Jewish he beamed effusively and shook our hands. (Pollak, 1980, 248)

Summary, Phase I

The primary conclusion to be drawn from the formative phase is that the Chinese government was attempting to unify the country and, as part of this effort, had embraced a single objective standard by which to determine national ethnicity, one that, by its own criteria, but not with intent to discriminate, excluded the Kaifeng Jews.

Phase II Openness in Action

As China began to open up following the purging of the so-called “Gang of Four”, foreign journalists began to visit Kaifeng again for the first time since the mid-1950s.iii   Their articles showed that the Kaifeng Jews maintained, at the very least, a vestigial sense of ethnic identity, which, of course, was being reinforced by the visits of foreign guests.  Also at the same time, Western Jews started to visit Kaifeng with increasing frequency. A number of people who became the Sino-Judaic Institute’s founders were among them.

All this forced the authorities to reconsider the issue of the Jewish nationality. In March 1980, the local United Front again asked the Central United Front: Should the Kaifeng Jews be treated as a minority group and how should they be referred to and treated in foreign affairs? The national body reaffirmed the 1953 document and suggested setting up representative figures to meet with foreigners (Xu, 2004,7).

Dr. Ron Kaye and his wife visited Kaifeng in 1981. Because of the medical aid he provided there, the local authorities, who had said that the stone tablets, or stelae, no longer existed, reversed their position and took the Kayes to the basement of the Kaifeng Museum where Dr. Kaye saw the steles and took rubbings of them. While there, he also led a seder with some of the Jewish families.iv

Dr. Wendy Abraham led the first official group tour from America to Kaifeng in August of 1983 after the American Jewish Congress put Kaifeng on its China tour itinerary.  Dr. Abraham recalled that her group met with Shi Zhongyu and Zhao Pingyu—the two descendants that local authorities would allow to meet with visitors. Security guards kept a close watch on the gathering, monitoring questions and responses. During their very first meeting, her group took some Polaroid photos and, after she gave one to Shi Zhongyu, he quietly handed it back to her. She noticed he had written his name and his home address on the back of it rather than his danwei, or work unit. She took this as the signal that he would like to communicate and that began her long correspondence and connection with the Shi family.

Meanwhile, in 1981, the eminent sociologist, Jin Xiaojing, published two articles in a popular Chinese magazine recounting her discovery of her Kaifeng Jewish roots. She had thought her family was Hui Muslim until she heard otherwise in a lecture by a colleague. The Kaifeng Jews were no longer just a subject of foreign interest.

Around the same time, Kaifeng municipal leaders began to explore how Western interest in the Kaifeng Jews might lead to a major expansion in tourism and economic investment for the city.

After SJI’s founding, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer visited Kaifeng in 1985, visited the sites, conducted a havdallah service with the Kaifeng Jews without incident, and interviewed a number of them. Shortly thereafter, however, Dr. Abraham traveled to Kaifeng to gather oral histories and to share Jewish information with them. She was arrested and then expelled. But her interviews showed that her subjects maintained a strong sense of identity as Jews based on their shared history rather than any sense of religious observance, an identity still confirmed by their local—but not their national—identity papers.

That same year, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer led a Jewish tour group to China. While they were in Xian, the authorities called in Rabbi Tokayer and said that the group would be arrested if they went to Kaifeng. Instead they flew the group to Canton.v

What caused the change in attitude in China? Perhaps it was a February 1985 feature in Time magazine, entitled “New Hope for the Jews of China,” which stated that “the prospect that they may soon be able to rebuild their synagogue has given the Jews of Kaifeng new hope that their long years of decline are finally over” (Urbach 2008, 85).  In an apparent response, on July 16 1985, a decree released by the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council of China (Guowuyuan Zongjiao Shiwu Ju) proclaimed that:

In China there used to be a Jewish nationality, but they have long been assimilated into the Han nationality. Our country does not have Jewish minzu [ethnicity] and does not have Jewish religion: therefore, the question of building a synagogue does not exist (Urbach 2008, 94-95).

By September, the city government had officially denounced the Time article for spreading lies about rebuilding the synagogue and disavowed any involvement in the scheme. However, the real issue was that what was being planned in Kaifeng went against official national policy (Urbach 2008, 85).

The last episode to push the limits of openness, came in 1989, when the American Jewish investor, Marvin Josephson, whose wife is Chinese, asked Rabbi Belzer to arrange a bat-mitzvah for their daughter in the Kaifeng, with members of the Kaifeng Jewish community attending. But, before departing Beijing for Kaifeng, the Josephsons met with US Ambassador, which attracted media coverage, which led to the Kaifeng CITS being ordered to cancel the ceremony, even though a last-minute compromise was arranged.  The senior CITS official involved candidly later told Noam Urbach: “Everything we do needs to be done quietly. There is no reason to let the authorities in Beijing know every little thing, because they get the wrong impression…talk over these things can only do damage” (Urbach, 93). Nothing better states the conflicting agendas on the local and national levels.

Summary, Phase II

Despite the continuing national policy denying Jewish ethnic identity, the increasing number of journalists, tourists, academics and activists coming to Kaifeng to meet Kaifeng Jews led to a number of significant developments:

  1. The residual identity of the Kaifeng Jews was strengthened by the visitors.
  2. The Jewish education and acculturation of some Kaifeng Jews was initiated.
  3. Dreams of capitalizing on foreign interest in the Kaifeng Jews emerged both in the minds of some Kaifeng Jews as well as in those of municipal officials.
  4. Foreign media coverage led to renewed scrutiny by national bodies of the situation in Kaifeng, to conflict between local proponents of economic development and those national bodies, and to renewed restrictions on both the Kaifeng Jews and foreign visitors.

Phase III The Period From Around the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between China and Israel through 2020

The local champions of economic development persisted in developing their project to lure foreign capital to Kaifeng by focusing on the Kaifeng Jews. Their vision was supported by the gradually improving relations between China and Israel, culminating in the establishment of full diplomatic relations in January 1992.

In May, the Israeli ambassador, Dr. Zev Suffot came to Kaifeng and was given the usual tour. Asked later by the Jewish Agency about working there and possibly bringing the Kaifeng Jews to Israel, Suffot said no, writing: “To claim they are Jews is absurd; there is nothing between these people and Judaism. It is obvious that this is the utter misuse of a term that has an objective meaning, not only halachic but also as an objective definition. We must deal with facts not with make-believe. This is my expert conclusion” (Urbach 2008, 99-100).

His attitude notwithstanding, buoyed by the new diplomatic relations, the KF municipal government allowed the founding of the Society for the Research of Jewish History and Culture in Kaifeng, headed by the Prof. Zhao Xiangru, a prominent member of the Academy of Social Sciences and a newly aware and active Kaifeng Jew, and the local scholar of the community and curator of the Municipal Museum, Wang Yisha.

In January 1993, the Research Society established a Construction Office to build a synagogue/museum, with Wang Yisha as its managing director. Two representatives from Kaifeng’s Jewish community, Zhang Xingwang, also known as Moishe (sic) Zhang, and Jin Guangyuan, were appointed as functionaries to the Construction Office. The official order emphasized that the creation of a Kaifeng Jewish History Museum was to be “in accordance with the country’s policy in foreign affairs, minorities and religion” with its objective being to “advance the city’s openness, contribute to its economy, promote technological and cultural ties, attract investments and technologies, and promote the economic advancement of Kaifeng.”vi

But Wang Yisha and Zhao Xiangru quarreled. Despite decades of friendship with some KF Jews, Wang Yisha followed the governmental line saying there were only Jewish descendants, not Jews; Zhao Xiangru, on the other hand, newly returned to his Jewish roots, was a vocal advocate for a distinctive Sino-Judaic identity and a revival of its culture (Urbach 2008, 91-92). Conflicts between Zhao and Wang—and Zhao’s political indiscretion—led to his eventual dismissal from the Society.

In May 1993, Prof. Zhao and Prof. Andrew Plaks, then a sinologist at Princeton, convened 50+ Kaifeng Jews, the largest such public gathering of Chinese Jews since the 1919 conference arranged by Bishop White. In comments at the conference, Zhao called for self-revival and restoration of Judaism and aliyah. Going public in a May 12 Jerusalem Post article, Zhao declared that “we are part of world Jewry and we consider our ancestral home to be Israel” and reported plans to restore Kaifeng’s Jewish cemetery, to construct a memorial hall based on the design of the Kaifeng synagogue, to establish an “Overseas Jews” economic zone for foreign Jews to engage in commercial activities and build factories. He was denounced to United Front and placed under house arrest in Beijing, removed from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and given early retirement. (Urbach 2008, 110-11)

In April 1995, Jin and two other Kaifeng Jews visited the Israeli Embassy in Beijing to inquire about the status of Kaifeng Jews under the Right of Return but he was not allowed to meet with any embassy officials.  Nine months later, in January 1996, the mayor of Kaifeng issued an order closing the Construction Office and suspending all of its pending projects. Although no particular reason was put forth, one can surmise that the decision represented the renewed application of the national policy and a reversal of the more lenient attitude that had prevailed since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and China. The mayor’s edict was followed by intensive police surveillance of all Chinese-Jewish activities (Urbach 2008, 122-124).  Then Jin and his colleagues returned to the Embassy again in August 1996 after having their local residency papers (hukouben), which classify them as Jews, authorized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The Israeli Embassy turned them away again. Upon returning to KF, the local police told them the documents were issued by mistake and attempted in vain to retrieve the Foreign Ministry materials.  A month later, the United Front and the Kaifeng police announced that all Kaifeng residents registered locally as “Jewish descendants” would be compelled according to law to change to Han or Hui, as they wished. But the Jewish identity option no longer officially existed even on the local level.

Did the authorities act because Israel rejected the Kaifeng Jews as Jews? Or did they act because a few Kaifeng Jews had asserted their identity and connection with Israel? It is unlikely, however, that the authorities and the Israeli Embassy were working in tandem, even if they favored the same result: that the Kaifeng Jews become Han.

During this time, Kaifeng began to attract American messianic Jews, or as I prefer to call them Judeo-Christians, who come to play an important role in the identity formation of the Kaifeng Jews.  The ironic part is that, even if conversion was their ultimate objective, along the way these Judeo-Christian missionaries did much good. For example, in 1999, the Jin family was linked with Finnish Christian Zionists and taken first to Finland and then on to Israel by the Shavei Israel, the Israel-based organization that seeks to return “lost Jews” to the Jewish homeland.  Jin’s daughter became the first Kaifeng Jew to convert formally to Orthodox Judaism in 2002, while Jin and his wife converted and celebrated their marriage according to Jewish law in 2005. In 2006 he was able to return to Kaifeng, where he managed to regain his Chinese passport and now actively urges his compatriots to emigrate from Kaifeng to Israel.

Meanwhile other efforts were being made to educate the Kaifeng Jews. In 1999, Prof. Xu Xin led a group of 12 foreign Jews to Kaifeng to make the film “Minyan in Kaifeng,” featuring a Shabbat dinner and service with Kaifeng Jews.  In 2000, the Israeli Noam Urbach, came to Kaifeng to study Chinese at Henan U. In 2001, the authorities allowed Shi Lei to take advantage of an offer by Rabbi Tokayer to study in Israel to study.  In July 2002, 12 Kaifeng Jews traveled to Nanjing for a 3 week workshop on Jewish history and culture hosted by Prof. Xu Xin at his Center of Jewish Studies at Nanjing U and, in 2005, Prof. Avrum Erhlich offered something similar for a group at Shandong U’s Center for Judaic and Inter-Religious Studies.

However, the most remarkable achievement in recent years has been the establishment of the Yiceleye (or Israelite) School, the first Jewish school set up in Kaifeng in modern times. And for this, we have an American Judeo-Christian named Timothy Lerner to thank. Lerner says his aim was to help Kaifeng Jews “learn the Jewish lifestyle” and move to Israel.vii  Eventually the authorities learned of his work and he was kicked out although he still returns for short visits and also meets up with KF Jews in Israel.

After Lerner was expelled for the second time, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg eventually came to Kaifeng to teach at the Yiceleye School. Concerned by what he learned about Lerner, about the missionary intentions of the Hong Kong Christians who funded the school, Rothberg engineered a breakaway school, which he called Beit HaTikvah. It is significant that while the Yiceleye School operated furtively behind drawn curtains, the Beit HaTikvah School, located in a residential apartment block, had a sign with a Star of David by its doorway publicly proclaiming its identity as a center of Chinese-Jewish culture.

For a time, the Kaifeng Jewish community was more divided than ever, with four distinct factions, as the Chinese call them: Lerner’s Yiceleye School, with links and funding from Hong Kong Christian-Zionists; the Beit HaTikvah School, initially led by Rothberg and funded by the Sino-Judaic Institute; a third group based around Shi Lei, and lastly Guo Yan, of the Zhao clan, who operates a family museum from her ancestral home.

In 2004, Shavei Israel’s founder Michael Freund came to Kaifeng with several Orthodox Israeli rabbis. Shavei subsequently started bringing young people to Israel to study.  Seven young people: 6 girls and a boy arrived in 2006. Four of the young women converted and become Israeli citizens in 2007.  In 2013, 7 young adult males, whom Shavei Yisrael brought from Kaifeng to Israel to study several years earlier, also converted to Orthodox Judaism and became Israeli citizens. One, Yaakov Wang has declared his intention to become a rabbi and return to Kaifeng to lead his community.  At the same time, Shavei sent Eran Barzilay and other young Israeli Chinese Studies majors to Kaifeng to teach at Beit HaTikvah and help organize the community. Recently, because Shavei maintained a continuous presence in Kaifeng, it has been able to assert its primacy by engineering a merger of the two schools under its banner.

In March 2014, Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund, plus Eran Barzilay, three Orthodox rabbis, and two Israeli immigration officials visited Kaifeng. Were they there to determine the Jewishness of the community? To prepare them for aliyah? Their purpose was never made public. Later that spring, the school celebrated a rather public traditional Passover seder, conducted for the first time by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who had made aliyah a few years back.  But shortly after this, the police, acting on complaints by neighbors about noisiness, shut down the school and Shavei had to find a new space.

In the spring of 2015, Barnaby Yeh, who was teaching KF Jews on behalf of the Sino-Judaic Institute, conducted a Passover seder with over 50 people in attendance.  The New York Times covered the Chinese and Hebrew seder. Shavei also held its own seder attended by another 30 Jews. Lastly, this past March, Shavei Israel brought five young KF Jewish women on aliyah to Israel, where they are now studying in Jerusalem. This brought the total number of Kaifeng’s Jews in Israel to 20.

Sadly and most unfortunately, these activities proved to be the zenith of our collective, albeit sometimes competitive, work.  Just two months later the community’s factions broke into intense conflict.  As always, access to foreigner guests and allegations about the misappropriation of communal funds were the issues at the fore. One particular family long-suspected by others of embezzlement responded by denouncing Barnaby Yeh and his followers for proselytizing Judaism to the authorities.  The latter group then went public with its charges online and in Points East.  Meanwhile—or possibly in response—a woman in the accused family applied for, and was granted, asylum in America on grounds of “religious persecution”.

Whether it was the publicity given the SJI-sponsored seder or the request for political asylum, in any event the authorities responded harshly and vigorously.  They suspended all Jewish tours to Kaifeng, including one led by Rabbi Tokayer that was already in China; closed the SJI exhibits on the Kaifeng Jews in the Qing-Ming Millennial Park and the Municipal Museum; closed the schools and expelled Barnaby Yeh. Individual Jewish tourists, specifically Mark Ellison, a Hong Kong-based financial analyst who visited Kaifeng in March 2016 confirmed all this and also that the Chinese language exhibit on the Kaifeng Jews at the Merchant Guildhall Museum had been removed.  Even the well, revered by the Kaifeng Jews as the last remaining part of their long-destroyed synagogue site, had been filled in and closed off. The Kaifeng Jews were prohibited from meeting collectively and the police even ordered individual families to remove the mezzuzot from their doorposts.  Chris Buckley in his article “Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure,” The New York Times online: Sept 24, 2016, confirmed all this as well but mentioned that individual Jewish families still were gathering to observe Jewish holy days as best they could.  It was his opinion, also shared by other China experts, that the government’s crackdown in Kaifeng was part of the national campaign against unapproved religions, of which Judaism is one.

Whatever its cause, the result has been the suspension, if not termination, of all external efforts aimed at educating the Kaifeng Jews and rehabilitating them as a functioning community.  Who knows when, or if, the authorities will relent?  Yet still the community persists.

Summary, Phase III

The third phase yields several observations:

  1. The collective memories, legends, customs and family histories were validated as authentic aspects of a Kaifeng Jewish identity that had persisted from earlier times.
  2. Scholarly and popular essays/books in Chinese have stimulated interest and provided content in the vernacular.
  3. Christian evangelists brought the Kaifeng Jews together in small groupings, shifting identity from that of an isolated clan to the more communal perspective of a school. Whatever their motives, the ultimate effect of early Christian activity in Kaifeng in the 1990’s was the coalescence of a sense of group identity; the increasingly Jewish Shabbat and holiday gatherings continue to be a prominent feature of Chinese Jewish cultural identity today. Furthermore, regardless of the intent of these missionaries, the immediate effects of Kaifeng Jewish aliyah to Israel has been the integration of a marginalized Jewish group into mainstream Jewish orthodoxy there.
  4. The attention shown to the community by the many foreign Jewish visitors and the educational work being done by Israeli and American Jewish organizations improved their own sense of self-esteem, deepened their Jewish identity and offered them prospects for improving their economic conditions, whether in China, Israel or elsewhere.
  5.  Despite the current curtailment of Jewish life in Kaifeng, enough of the descendants have a strong Jewish identity and an interest in preserving it for future generations that it will challenging for the authorities to suppress.  With access, even controlled access, to the Internet; with more and more information available in the Chinese language on Jewish history, culture and Israel; with China’s overall Judeophile and Israel-friendly attitude; and with the ability of foreign Jews to visit Kaifeng and for Kaifeng Jews to travel abroad; the re-emergence of a small but thriving Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng remains a strong possibility. I would only add one caveat: that a community center/synagogue must be built.  For that to happen, the status of the Kaifeng Jews in China needs to be resolved once and for all before any proposal can move forward.