Who Are the Kaifeng Jews — and Why Is China ‘Cracking Down’ on Them?

By Sam Kestenbaum for Forward

Recent months have brought reports that descendants of Jews in Kaifeng, China are under threat. Activists call it a government “crackdown.”

Police have shut down the only Jewish learning center in Kaifeng, helmed by the Israeli activist group Shavei Israel, say activists. A well that community members identify as their historic mikveh, for ritual Jewish bathing, was reportedly blocked. Foreign Jewish tour groups are said to have been barred from entering the city. And community members are allegedly being monitored and questioned.

Who are these descendants of Jews in Kaifeng? Are they being threatened and why?

Who are they?

Today there are up to 1,000 people in Kaifeng China who identify as descendants of Jews. They come from eight clans, but all claim descent from Jews who travelled along the Silk Road and settled here, establishing a presence by the 10th century in Kaifeng. In 1163, residents built a synagogue. During the Ming Dynasty, Kaifeng Jewry may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.

But the group’s numbers waned. Fires and floods destroyed religious infrastructure. The last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, according to Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization active in Kaifeng.

In the beginning of the 20th century, European Christian missionaries hoped to rekindle the community’s religious memory and also introduce the New Testament. But the Kaifeng descendants had little interest, apparently. “No spark of interest in their history and in the divine heritage of Israel could be aroused in them,” bemoaned one Anglican bishop. “They were Jews no longer.”

China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s wiped out almost all signs of Jewish practice. There are now no more than 1,000 members who believe they have Jewish backgrounds.

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