By Sam Kestenbaum for Forward
The Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, is facing a government “crackdown,” according to Jewish activists.
“It is time to break the silence,” said Anson Laytner, former president of the Sino-Judaic Institute, which has been working in China since the 1980s. “Their very survival as Jews is at stake.”
Government police have shut down the only Jewish learning center in Kaifeng, helmed by the Israeli group Shavei Israel, said Laytner, who is not in China but receives regular reports from contacts there. A well that the Kaifeng Jews identify as their historic mikveh, for ritual Jewish bathing, was reportedly filled and blocked. Foreign Jewish tour groups have been barred from entering the city. And community members are allegedly being monitored and questioned.
The small Jewish population in Kaifeng, which numbers no more than 1,000, flew under the radar until recently. The Chinese government seemed to tolerate their presence, though Judaism in not a recognized religion in China.
The government has harassed members of some unrecognized groups and restricted their religious activities. More recently, Chinese president Xi Jinping has also moved to limit Western influences, recently passing a law that will restrict the work of foreign organizations and their local partners. State news reports indicate that more than 7,000 foreign nongovernment groups will be affected.
Increasing international attention to the Kaifeng community may have also been a factor in the government’s restrictions on the community’s Jewish activities, Laytner said. For example, last Passover, the New York Times covered a seder in Kaifeng, held in Chinese and Hebrew. In March, media outlets in Israel and the United States covered the arrival of five young Kaifeng Jewish women who were moving to Israel, where they are now studying in Jerusalem. This brought the total number of Kaifeng’s Jews in Israel to 20.
It is also possible, Laytner said, that government officials are reacting to the fact that a Kaifeng Jew recently filed for political asylum in an American court on grounds of religious persecution.
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