Board of Deputies refuses to lobby Chinese over Judaism

Kaifeng Jews in Jerusalem

Kaifeng Jews in Jerusalem

The Board of Deputies has rejected a call to lobby Chinese authorities to recognise Judaism as one of the country’s official religions.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Synagogue, had urged the move after meeting Chinese Jews earlier this year.

But Phil Rosenberg, the Board’s public affairs director, said: “The Board does not intervene in issues unless the local community asks us to. So far, we haven’t any indication from the Kaifeng community that they would like that.”

Only five religions or denominations are authorised in China — Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Buddhism and Islam.

Recognition means, for example, that they are allowed to organise meetings for more than 10 people.

But there is a difference between Western Jews in Hong Kong and other cities — who enjoy the freedom to religiously congregate — and the remnants of an indigenous Chinese community in Kaifeng in the east, who are believed to have been descended from medieval Jewish settlers.

Mr Rosenberg explained that Jews from the West catered for by Chabad House “are not registered as a religious group, but an expatriate cultural affiliation”.

Rabbi Romain, following discussions with the Board, acknowledged that its cautiousness was “the right approach, because China is such a complex society. It doesn’t seem the right moment to make a fuss.”

The rabbi, who visited China earlier this year, said that he did not know the number of indigenous Chinese Jews.

“Part of the problem is that they are not organised,” he explained. “I came across a lot of them, but they didn’t seem to have contact with one another.”

But he noticed that there was “great disparity between the indigenous Jews and the expats, who are given enormous freedom to do what they want”.

He added that the Jewish knowledge of the Kaifeng Jews was “a bit half-baked.

“It is also open to question how halachically Jewish they are because they were assimilated at some point. And also the Chinese go through the patrilineal line.”

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a growing interest in Judaism within Chinese academia, with a number of universities opening centres of Jewish studies.

Two years ago, Nanjing University sent a special delegation to London to honour the Iraqi-born philanthropist Naim Dangoor for his support.

Last updated: 9:46am, December 20 2013