Beliefnet
Beliefnet News

Few people have ever heard of China’s tiny Jewish community, which is not recognized by the Chinese government nor by most Jews.

The topic comes up as the Wall Street Journal tackles China’s problems with religious freedom this week, reports Dr. Terry Mattingly’s “GetReligion” media-monitoring website. In a WSJ‘s opinion piece, editors argue that China may have succeeded in using crackdowns to deter resistance in the past, but recent reactions by China’s Buddhists, Muslims and Christians indicate that the Communist Party’s heavy hand is beginning to create more resistance.

“By depriving religious and ethnic minorities the space to preserve their culture and practice their faith, Beijing is alienating the next generation who have rising expectations for personal freedom,” notes Journal‘s editors. “A clash between the Party’s culture of control and the Chinese people’s growing consciousness about their rights looms.”

The GetRelgion website maintains that most professional journalists have no clue when attempting to report religious events. However, the website gives the Journal passing marks in this case.

Too often the world ignores China’s tiny Jewish community, observes the GetReligion piece, noting that a dwindling group numbering no more than 1,000 in the town of Kaifeng is viewed with suspicion by both Communist Party leaders and most Orthodox Jews.

The Journal piece ponders what makes someone a Jew:

For much of the past millennium, Jews in Kaifeng— descendants of merchants who arrived here from Persia, probably around the 11th century—have been struggling with an existential question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

The handful of Kaifengers who go to Israel are sometimes floored to discover they need to go through a rabbi-certified conversion to be accepted as Jews, while the ones staying home squabble over which of them are really Jewish.

The question has surprising consequences in this dusty walled city in central China. According to the Chinese government, there are no Kaifeng Jews because there are no Chinese Jews. Judaism isn’t one of China’s five official religions and Jews aren’t designated as one of the country’s 55 official minorities. Orthodox Jews have a similar view, though for different reasons. Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do, while orthodox Jews define Judaism as passing through the mother.

Incidentally, the Israeli Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that 12 Messianic Jews could claim their “right of return” even though they traced their heritage through their fathers. The Journal continues:

“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

CLICK HERE to read more from GetReligion

To read the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, CLICK HERE

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus