Behind the Headlines the Jews of the Far East
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of the Far East

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There are Jews in the People’s Republic of China. Five live in Shanghai and one in Harbin. The six receive monthly aid checks from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In addition to these permanent residents, there are also many Jews from around the world who come to China to engage in business, the new “China traders.” They can be seen in Peking, in Shanghai and in Canton. In the latter city there is usually a Passover seder every year because of the large number of Jewish business persons attending the Canton Fair.

Here, in Peking, one sees evidence of privately owned businesses, and above all, the desire for bicycles, radios, watches, tape decks, washing machines and motorcycles, all of which sell out the same day they arrive in department stores. Bernard Levin, the American Consul General in Hong Kong, who is Jewish, said that the trend is for China to look toward the West. China’s top priority, he sense, is to focus on economic development.


The new economic development which manifests itself every day is a key to understanding why Jews are involved in the China trade. One Jewish trader told this correspondent, “China is not Russia. This is not the Iron Curtain.” Western influences are penetrating China’s protective isolationism. An example of Jewish involvement as China traders is Lord Kadoorie of Hong Kong who on occasion meets with top Chinese government officials to discuss possible business ventures.

In addition to the economic prospects, Jews are attracted to China because anti-Semitism is foreign to the people of this country. The Chinese have always been tolerant of religion, including Judaism. Jews came late to the Far East and never in significant numbers.

But no matter how small a group, Jewish life thrived here in the ninth and tenth centuries when 1,000 Jews settled in Kaifeng. They probably came overland from India via Persia and Iraq. By the middle of the 19th century the fabled and once thriving Kaifeng Jewish community disappeared. They were completely assimilated. Over the centuries, Jews were allowed to practice their religion undisturbed. They enjoyed complete equality. China’s Jewish community remained isolated and unknown to Europeans until the 17th century.

In the 1840’s, with the cession of Hong Kong to Great Britain, Jews returned to China, reversing a trend from the 13th century to the middle of the 19th century during which no new Jewish communities were formed in this country. More Jews settled in China after World War I. During the years of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, 20,000 Jewish victims of Nazism lived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

Jews are now visiting China in record numbers as tourists, in addition to traders and scientists involved in medicine and engineering. One Orthodox Australian Jew who travels to China several times a year and imports linens told me that he has no trouble following dietary laws here. He takes kosher frozen food into the country.

Sometimes, when he tries to explain what Judaism is, the reaction from the Chinese in a respectful way is to say, “like Kissinger.” The former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor is still revered and remembered for his visit in this country of about one billion people.


Jewish tourists make an impact on the Chinese because of their sophistication and worldliness and because they far outstrip other ethnic groups visiting the country, according to Fred Kaplan of China Passage travel service in New York City, an agency which handles numerous delegations and which arranged a recent trip of Jewish journalists to China. The Chinese consider Jews to be “very clever” and cite Albert Einstein as an example.

Government expressions in the United Nations or in official pronouncements aside, there is a genuine curiosity in China about Israel. While Israel remains an unspoken word in government offices, the Chinese people know that Israel exists in the Middle East. And while newspapers are sometimes harsh on Israel, the visiting journalists were told that lately there has been a spate of rumors that all types of connections exist between Israel and China, including the sale of Israeli military equipment to the People’s Republic.

The current attitude of the Chinese people toward Jews was exemplified by a Chinese official who was told by this correspondent that he was here with a group of Jewish journalists “You are welcome,” he said.

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