The Jews and China

 In China

Article featured in 2013 GCM December

Jewish history in China may date from the eighth century AD when Jewish traders traveled the Silk Road. A Jewish settlement was established in Kaifeng in Henan province. Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci wrote of the settlers in his journal in 1605. They later built a synagogue in 1163.

By mid-19th century the Kaifeng Jewish community was in steep decline. In modern times their descendants sought recognition as a Jewish minority (Youtai) on their People’s Republic of China identity cards, but the Chinese authorities consider them completely assimilated into the Han Chinese or the Hui (Chinese Muslims).

Shanghai experienced three distinct periods of Jewish immigration. The first wave occurred in the 1880s with the arrival of Jewish businessmen primarily from Baghdad. The most noteworthy were the Sassoon and Kadoorie families. The latter made its fortune in Shanghai and Hong Kong real estate and utilities. By 1932 the Shanghai stock exchange membership was composed of 40 percent Sephardi Jews.

A second wave in the early 1900s was composed of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and the Bolshevik Revolution. Most settled in Harbin, where they numbered more than 13,000 by 1929. These Ashkenazi Jews did not move south to Shanghai until after the Japanese invaded Manchuria. They resisted mixing socially with the older Sephardi community. Shanghai was one of the few free transit ports in the early 20th century. It did not require visa or police certificates. There were no quotas on Jews.

This ease of access facilitated the third wave of immigration when an estimated 20,000 Jews fled from Germany to Shanghai between 1937 and 1939. At one time the sizeable population of German and Austrian Jews was confined to the Hongkou District in northern Shanghai, which was less a ghetto than simply an area designated for stateless refugees. After the war, amid political turmoil in China, Shanghai Jews were evacuated or moved to Israel, the U.S., Australia etc. After that, little Jewish life remained in Shanghai.

Today, centers for Jewish studies exist in Shanghai and Nanjing. Jewish tourists from the U.S. and Israel can go on conducted tours of former Jewish sites in Shanghai. There is much cultural, technological and economic exchange between China and Israel.

Mr. Tuvya Zaretsky, President of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, has the following suggestions for reaching Jews in Asia:

1. The State of Israel is interested in strengthening relations with Chinese people and culture. For political and cultural reasons their government is sending students to study and live in China. It may be possible for Chinese families (including Christians) to invite Israeli students to stay with them while they study in Chinese universities. Many Israelis, when abroad, are open to new cross-cultural experiences. Chinese Christian families could interact with them and share the gospel with them.

2. It is possible to invite Israelis to teach Hebrew or Jewish history to ethnic Chinese Christians, especially those with a call to take the gospel “back to Jerusalem.” This may be possible under a program of cultural exchange. The focus on cultural differences will provide further opportunities to introduce the gospel into discussion of philosophy, history and language.

3. Offer to send Chinese language tutors to Israelis either in Israel or in schools within Chinese population centers.

4. Partner with missions already in place or seek out opportunities to reach Israeli post-army backpackers. Christians from a variety of backgrounds have set up tea shops, restaurants and youth hostels for ministry to Israeli backpackers in Nepal, North India, Bali, Thailand, Laos and beach resorts such as Goa. This may also now be possible within China.

5. Attract Israeli backpackers and tourists to tourist sites in China through advertisements in Israeli magazines and newspapers. Clean, safe and inexpensive hospitality centers are reported quickly among young Israelis. Such centers have been used to communicate the gospel through discussions of Bible history and prophecy over meals.

6. Every fall, Israeli citizens take a one-week holiday to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In ancient times this culminated with an agricultural harvest festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now delegates from several countries, as well as Christian groups, come to participate in a solidarity parade. A group of Chinese Christians could arrange to join in such a parade and participate in cultural exchange activities during that week to share about the Messiah of Israel.

7. There may be as many as 7,000 Israeli Jewish Christians in Israel. Direct outreach evangelism is legal and done regularly among Israeli citizens. Chinese evangelicals would be welcome. The Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism is a network of Jewish mission agencies around the world. Their website is an excellent source of contact information for potential ministry partners in Israel.

(Source: The bulk of this article, with a few minor additions, is drawn from the Great Commission News, Summer 2012.)

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