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Bringing Our Lost Brethren Back Home: Messianic Zionism, Settler-Colonialism, and the Lost Jews of Kaifeng
The Kaifeng Jews of China–numbering at present some five hundred to one thousand in total–are one of the latest communities to garner the interest of right-wing messianic organizations connected to the settler-colonial movement in Israel. Over the last decade, messianic groups have intensified efforts to encourage the community to immigrate (aliyah) to Israel. This endeavor is making some headway. Messianic organizations, including Amichav (My People are Returning), its semi-successor Shavei Yisrael (Returners to Israel) and, in more supportive/facilitating roles, a number of Christian Zionist groups, see the Kaifeng Jews as “Lost Jews” and as such important assets. “Lost Jews” represent new sources of potential immigration to Israel. This is critical given the perception among such organizations that traditional sources of immigration–the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union–are either exhausted, or spiritually or ideologically unsuitable. There is also a realization that a conclusive Jewish demographic majority within historical Palestine remains elusive. Encouraging the immigration of “Lost Jews,” a somewhat unconventional solution, partially addresses some of these issues. In addition, by virtue of their demographic utility, “Lost Jews” help further the settlement project in the West Bank (as well as Arab high-density areas within Israel like the Galilee), and undermine recourses to the two-state solution. Finally, messianic organizations espouse a cosmological view that associates the return of “Lost Jews,” including those of Kaifeng, to Israel as part of the “Ingathering of the Exiles” that will hasten the End of Days.
“Lost Jews” refers to that conceptual category of people whose religious/cultural connections to Judaism have supposedly frayed or dissipated altogether. This dissipation is a result of assimilatory pressures from their host societies, persecution, as well as limited interaction with the wider Jewish world. Messianic organizations use this moniker to refer to the Abayudaya of Uganda, Hispanic Jews (Bnei Anousim), the Mizo of Northeastern India (Bnei Menashe), and the Kaifeng Jews of China. Rabbinical and scholarly circles have contested the confessional and ethnic identities of these groups on both legal (halakic) and historical grounds. However, this contestation has not deterred messianic organizations or their Christian Zionist allies from lobbying for recognition of their Jewishness and hence eligibility for emmigration to Israel. Recognition from the rabbinical authorities in Israel is usually attained following a several decades-long and complex process of re-Judaisation wherein a specifically messianic, orthodox and Ashkenazi understanding of the traditions becomes dominant. Messianic organizations often succeeded in this endeavor principally because of their ability to outbid other transnational Jewish organizations espousing alternative or competing visions. Through the monetary/ideational influence they offer and wield (e.g., the promise of emigration, economic opportunities, etc.), and their capacity, they are able to construct a localized infrastructure of religious instruction and propagation.
The refashioning (never “conversion” in the lingo of messianic organizations) of “Lost Jewish” communities along such religious lines is important on two counts. First it bolsters the claims of these communities to Jewishness and makes them, albeit on shaky grounds, eligible under the Israeli Law of Return. Although messianic organizations expend their political capital to push these claims and facilitate immigration, it is easier to convince the rabbinical courts if the applicants/communities in question are seemingly Jewish in practice and form. In the case of the Kaifeng Jews this is particularly important as from the perspective of Jewish law, they fall short of satisfying the bare requirements given that in accordance with Chinese tradition they trace their ancestry patrilineally. Second, by bringing “Lost Jews” back into the fold under an orthodox guise, messianic organizations, which are part and parcel of the National Religious Movement, help assert the normative authenticity and hegemony of their religious interpretations over others.
The Kaifeng community in Henan traces its origins to a group of Persianite/Central Asian Mizrahi Jewish merchants who settled in the capital city of Kaifeng (then Bianliang) of the Northern Song dynasty sometime in the tenth and eleventh centuries. There were probably other Jewish congregations scattered all along China’s maritime coasts and northwest frontiers in conglomerations that came in tandem with other Muslim diasporic communities. The Kaifeng congregation (kehillah) was by far the most pre-eminent (and wealthy) among these given its successful consecration of a major synagogue by 1163 and which remained in use for centuries thereafter. The community supposedly reached its apogee during the Ming period (fourteenth and seventeenth centuries) with a population of nearly five thousand and the attainment of several of its members the highly-prestigious jinshi degrees. It later entered an interminable process of decline that came to head in the mid-nineteenth century with the destruction of the synagogue by flooding in 1849 and the disintegration of communal practice. Although subsequent rescue societies emerged by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from both Christian and Jewish quarters in the West to revive the congregation, it was by that juncture – aside from a faint acknowledgement of ancestral origins among various clans claiming no more than a few hundred members - a legacy of the past. This is not to say that there were no residual ethnic conceptions of identity still latent in the community; this is discernable from repeated (and failed) efforts from the 1950s to garner an official recognition of their group – youtai ren - as a self-standing shaoshu minzu (ethnic minority) in the eyes of Beijing.
Following Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang (reform and opening), the Jews of Kaifeng began to attract renewed interest from various quarters including local and foreign academics and anthropologists (some of whom later created critical organizations like the American-based Sino-Judaic Institute), visitors on Jewish Heritage Tours, as well as evangelical missionaries interested in their Jewish inheritance. This gradual exposure from outside influences, hand in hand with a budding local interest in the community’s religious/cultural past, has helped catalyze the emergence of a new sense of identity and communal spirit among Kaifeng Jews that has become increasingly visible since the 1990s. It should be noted that much of this has taken place within the contours of a restrained political environment in which the Chinese authorities have continued, despite growing economic incentives to do otherwise, to insist there is no Jewish community to speak of. Likewise the Israeli state, following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 and eager not to antagonize Beijing, has refused to extend recognition. This meant that most activities and projects associated with highlighting the Jewish legacy of Kaifeng had a rather precarious existence and has been subject to the political whims of the central authorities. These include, for example, the Construction Office (1993) which was delegated the responsibility of building a Jewish History Museum on the site of the former synagogue. It was closed down in 1996 as part of a wider clampdown that was connected to growing demands within the Kaifeng Jewish community for emigration. It was in he same year in which three individuals from Kaifeng, claiming the status of youtai houyi (Jewish descendants), sought entry into the Israeli embassy and demanded they be allowed to exercise their “right of return to their ancestral homeland.”
Notwithstanding these setbacks, there was clearly a space for cautious non-state groups and actors to tap into such aspirations and re-direct them as they saw fit. In 1999, a group of Finnish Christian Zionists–connected to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem that has assisted some 115,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel from the early 1990s–facilitated the entry of the first Kaifeng family into Israel. The family’s head, in fact, was one of the individuals connected to the 1996 incident. This was accomplished in cooperation with Shavei Yisrael, a “Lost Jews” organization founded in the late 1990s by Michael Freund, an American-Israeli pundit with connections to both the messianic settler movement and the right-wing Netanyahu-linked political establishment in Israel. He had originally worked with Amichav, a pioneering “Lost Jews” organization that had emerged following the 1967 war and which has sought to forward the goals of the Gush Emunim bloc by bringing in “Lost Jews” as settlers.
These connections reveal the ideological stance embraced by Freund, who had advocated early on that the Israeli state take a more creative approach towards solving the “demographic and spiritual crisis of unprecedented proportion” which he sees the Jewish people as facing. This crisis is marked by a shrinking population, wavering commitment to tradition, and a youth exodus that could be solved by turning towards those populations which, while seemingly non-Jewish, appear “sincere in their desire to be Jews”. His organization, Shavei Yisrael, in leveraging its connections with the Rabbinate and the Likud political establishment, has sought to do just that by weathering institutional opposition to the immigration of recently Judaised “Lost Jews” and ensuring the approval of their fast-track immigration to Israel (including by way of procuring a bogus legal ruling from the Rabbinate in 2005 declaring that they were of the “seed of Israel”.) The last decade has seen Shavei Yisrael successfully bring in thousands of “Lost Jews”–mostly notably the Tibeto-Burmese speaking Bnei Menashe among others–who had been converted over many decades prior by Amichav. Prior to Israel’s 2005 Gaza disengagement, some were placed in Gaza, but they have largely settled in Hebron, the West Bank settlements, as well as in the Galilee. The tempo of immigration for these “New Jews” has in fact increased over the past few years under the Netanyahu government, with 2012-2013 seeing some of the highest influxes.
Unsurprisingly, the existence of the Kaifeng Jews was of interest to Shavei Yisrael, and mention of them does appear in Michael Freund’s available English publications as early as 2001. Perhaps out of caution and initial uncertainty about the claims of Jewishness surrounding this community, Shavei Yisrael maintained a light engagement with Kaifeng, preferring to work, as the 1999 experience indicates, through Christian-Zionist (and Judeo-Christian) affiliated activists/groups. These activists were critical in establishing the first contemporary religious hub for the community–the Yiceleye (Israelite) school–and encouraging more cohesive forms of religious practice. More practically, with the assistance of Shavei Yirsrael, they offered scholarships as well as opportunities for emigration, targeting mainly young Kaifeng Jews. In 2006, the first major batch of Shavei-sponsored immigrants, made up of four women, arrived in Israel with funding from ICEJ’s Hong Kong/Taiwan branches. All of these women reportedly underwent official conversion to Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Given the Christian backgrounds of these activists, there was some apprehension among other Jewish organizations operating in Kaifeng that there was a Christianization project taking place at the Yiceleye school under the guise of religious revival. This led to the dispatch in 2004 of several missions to Kaifeng, including one by Shavei Yisrael headed by Michael Freund, two Orthodox Israeli rabbis and a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Religions Affairs (Eliyahu Birnbaum, who also works for Shavei Yisrael) to investigate these claims. Although nothing was proven, this galvanized other Jewish-American organizations – such as the Sino-Judaic Institute and Kulanu - to throw their weight behind a breakaway venture, the Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope) school, which was founded in 2009. The hope underlying it was to promote a more autochthonous understanding of a Sino-Judaic tradition in Kaifeng that did not emphasize the need for emigration, all the while protecting the community from Christian influences.
Interestingly, it appears that while Shavei backed the new school, it continued to maintain its links with “suspect” Christian circles and the popular Yiceleye school. By doing so, Shavei Yisrael may have pushed other Jewish-American organizations to yield to its vision of encouraging emigration. This was mainly because they feared losing locals to evangelizing Christian groups which were still attracting considerable support due to their ability to offer a way “out” of Kaifeng through the school (ironically, a scenario enabled largely by way of their connections with Shavei Yisrael). This ultimately allowed the organization to force a merger between the two schools in 2013, ending the schism, and asserting a predominant role in shaping the community’s religious and cultural identity.
Through the new synagogue-center, which has emerged as a critical congregational point for the community and is now regularly manned by Israeli/American teachers, Shavei Yirsrael has been able to pursue a more pronounced conversion project involving the Judaisation, Ahkenization, and even Israelization of the community as it has done elsewhere. This is done through various means (many of which had already been utilized in the context of the preceding schools) ranging from the provision of regular classes in person or via Skype in multiple subjects, the publication of newsletters and religious material (such as Haggadahs) in Chinese, establishing congregational prayer and observing the Shabbat, to celebrating Passover, Purim, as well as the Israeli National Day (Israeli flags and paraphilia, as well as the singing of the Hatikvah, are increasingly fixtures of communal life) among many other activities. Inherent to the success of this project of course is the construction of a religious infrastructure that would be manned by local Kaifeng Jews themselves and who could then galvanize, by virtue of their authority and example, the wholesale emigration of the community.
The search for a Chinese Rabbi has therefore been on Shavei’s agenda from the very beginning, although finding one had to wait until 2009 when a second group from Kaifeng, this time comprising seven young men who emigrated (this video captures their arrival to Israel). Among them, one Wang Yage (or Yaakov Wang) had repeatedly expressed the desire in multiple media outlets of becoming the “first Chinese Rabbi in 200 years”. Brought to Israel on a one-year tourist visas (after procuring permission from the Israeli Ministry of Interior), Shavei Yisrael arranged for Wang’s group to be sent to study at a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat in the West Bank for several years, interspersed with some time spent at a kibbutz. This experience prepared them for the conversion process/examinations by the rabbinical court, and indeed by 2013, all of them were recognized as Jews and were bestowed Israeli citizenship. While some, such as Yaakov, will return to Kaifeng (as have others) and participate in the consolidation and promotion of messianic interpretations of Judaism, others have opted to stay in Israel: three from this group for instance have joined the Israeli military’s Golani brigade, probably in some intelligence-gathering capacity.
During the past decade, some fifteen or so Kaifeng Jews, through the help of Shavei Yisrael and other Christian Zionist organizations, have emigrated to their “ancestral homeland.” Their stories are often presented as heart-warming re-discoveries of heritage and severed roots, with the settler-colonial dimension–of their utilization as assets in a demographic war–often ignored. This is not to say this is the whole story of what is happening in Kaifeng. There are, for example, other Jewish groups attempting to promote alternative visions of communal religious life there, and there is also some contestation and opposition by the community towards the visions and objectives of messianic organizations. Nonetheless, the settler-colonial dimension casts a shadow upon the narrative of innocuous religious revival. The number of emigrants will probably increase over the coming years and will follow patterns already seen elsewhere with the Bnei Menashi and Hispanic “Lost Jewish” communities. This will partially be the outcome of Shavei Yisrael’s growing dominance over communal discourses, its success in creating a religious infrastructure, and its effective exploitation of economic need on the one hand, and the Chinese government’s perhaps mounting disregard for the loss of a few hundred of its citizens under its zouchu (going out) policies on the other.
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