But whereas in previous years, Israel and its athletes have utilized the Olympic Games as an opportunity to reach out to the host country's local Jewish community in a show of tribal solidarity and brotherhood, no such gesture is in the offing for next month's games. Sadly, China's Jews are being given the cold shoulder by the Jewish state.
YES, YOU read that correctly. There are in fact Chinese Jews, and they are heirs to a proud and ancient heritage dating back more than 1,000 years. The first Jews are believed to have settled in China's imperial capital of Kaifeng, along the banks of the Yellow River, during the Song Dynasty.Despite China's poor record on human rights in general, Freund writes that the Jewish community has not been persecuted there.
Over the centuries, China provided its Jews with a welcome and comfortable home, free of the widespread hatred and persecution that plagued Jewish communities elsewhere in the Diaspora.
In 1163, Kaifeng's Jews built a beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt numerous times. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Kaifeng Jewry may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.
But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews' knowledge of Judaism. After the last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, Kaifeng's Jewish community effectively disbanded.
BUT THAT was not the end of the story. Against all odds, Kaifeng's Jews struggled to preserve their Jewish identity, passing down whatever little they knew to their progeny.
Today there are still several hundred people in the city who are clearly and verifiably identifiable as descendants of the Jewish community. Nonetheless, the policy of the Israeli government throughout the years has been essentially to ignore Kaifeng's Jewish descendants, out of a dubious fear that China's government might not look kindly on such contacts.
Since Jews are not an officially recognized minority group in China's multicultural society, and Judaism is not accorded the status of an official religion, the question of Kaifeng Jewry's status is a sensitive one for Beijing, which views them as full-fledged Han Chinese. And with the burgeoning of economic, cultural and tourism ties between the two nations, it appears that Israel is unwilling to go near the issue.
China has always treated its Jews kindly and graciously, and there is no reason to suspect that this has changed. Israel can and should extend a hand to Kaifeng Jewry, while of course respecting Chinese sensitivities. With its international atmosphere, the Olympic Games would provide an excellent opportunity for Israel to do so, in coordination with Chinese officials.It would be a terrible shame for Israel to forgo the opportunity to renew ties with the Jewish community there.
In the past, the Olympic Games have served as just such a venue. In 2000, at the summer games in Sydney, Australia, Israeli and Jewish athletes participated in a range of events that were organized with the local Jewish community. These included the hosting of competitors for Shabbat hospitality as well as the establishment of a memorial for the Israelis who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Games.
Similarly, in 2002, at the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Israeli and Jewish athletes attended two receptions with Utah Jews as well as services with them.
Michael Freund's knowledge of the Jewish community in China comes from personal experience, as you can see by watching this video of a Jewish wedding in China that Freund attended [in Hebrew]:
Here is another YouTube video that gives an overview of the Jewish community in China [in English]:
For a general overiew of the history of the Jewish community in China, you can check out Wikipedia.
Also, check out other posts about Jewish communities in unexpected places.