Can the Jews Find a Home in China?

Can the Jews Find a Home in China?
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Over the course of a millennium, the Silk Road, the Soviet Union and antisemitism paved Jewish ways to China. First Babylonian traders arrived in Song Dynasty China (960–1279). These Jews followed the Silk Road until they reached the middle of the Middle Kingdom: Kaifeng, the Imperial capital. There they set up shop and shul, and there they remained – and declined – until the nineteenth century. The next Jewish enclave emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century in Harbin, a city closer to Pyongyang and Vladivostok than Beijing, formerly under Imperial Russian control. The Harbin Jews originally comprised Russian railway construction workers, demobbed troops from the Russo-Japanese War and refugees fleeing pogroms. Finally, and most famously, there are the Jews that fled Europe for concessionary, cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Shanghai was home to more than 20,000 Jewish refugees – more than any other city in the world. Since China's opening up in 1979, many Jews have come and gone in the name of business, education and intrigue.

The roots and offshoots of the earlier Jewish communities either decomposed or decamped. Kaifeng's Jews exemplify the former. They assimilated into oblivion, adopting patrilineal succession (precluding their Jewishness by Orthodox standards), and paying homage to Confucianism. Harbin's and Shanghai's Jews show the latter. The Jews of Harbin were pioneering Zionists. Many left for Mandate Palestine in the early 1920s, while others emigrated in the ensuing decades, prompted by economic crisis, as well as inhospitable Japanese and Soviet occupations. After the Second World War, Shanghai's Jews migrated in their thousands to Israel, America, Europe, Hong Kong and Australia. The Jews that have come to China for business, education and intrigue post-1979 are small in number and mostly transient. Why have Jews so readily departed China or so quickly dissolved into its culture? This question is all the more puzzling given China's benign treatment of Jews throughout history.

Beijing, where I live and study, does not offer clear-cut answers, not least because it does not boast much of a Jewish history. However, Beijing's Jewish present sheds some light. There are two small Jewish communities. Both comprise expats and travellers, and both are lokshen havens in a country of noodles. Many people will be familiar with one of these communities: Chabad Lubavitch. Atypically welcoming for a Hasidic sect, Chabad communities offer kosher food and gentle proselytism to Jewish students and travellers worldwide. Chabadcommunities do not vary much from Baku to Brooklyn to Beijing. Chabad has a doctrinal core and is generic by design.

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