Friday, January 01, 2010

Chinese Jews from Kaifeng arrive in Israel in 2009

From Jewminica, via Ignoblus.

Who are, or were, the Kaifeng Jews? To quote from a Forward piece I posted here in 2008:
The first recorded settlement of Jews in China dates from the ninth century, when some Silk Road merchants schlepped into the Song Dynasty capital of Kaifeng and settled down. Intermarriage led to near-total assimilation, and the synagogue was lost to the sands of time (and floodwaters of the Yellow River), but despite the loss of nearly all Judaic languages, books and customs, some in Kaifeng still consider themselves Jews. China’s reasonably benign policies toward statistically insignificant and politically low-profile minorities (for example, not Tibetans) have even led a dozen or so descendants to file for official minority status, which brings special protections and exemptions.

The Kaifeng Jews' arrival in Israel brings to mind a widespread misconception captured in an especially fatuous and uninformed statement once made by a great man, Nelson Mandela:
Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.
By the way, the country referred to by Mandela as "black" in this comparison was Iraq!

As I have noted before, descriptions of Israel as a "white" country are usually based on a taken-for-granted assumption that Israeli Jews are all of European origin. In fact, about half of Israeli Jews are Middle Eastern Jews, or Mizrahim--making them either as "white" or as "black" as Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, Algerians, Saudis, Palestinians, and so on. (Over the past six decades, the Arab world has been almost completely ethnically cleansed of Jews, many of whose communities dated back thousands of years; and an Iranian Jewish community that used to number over 100,000 a half-century ago is mostly gone, though a remnant of 10,000 or 15,000 still remain. The great majority of these Mizrahi refugees wound up in Israel.) How one should classify Israeli Jews from predominantly Muslim parts of the former Soviet Union, such as the Caucasus or Central Asia, is a complicated question. To add a further complication, Falasha Jews from Ethiopia really are racially "black".

And as for the Kaifeng Jews ... well, whatever one thinks about them, it's hard to see them as European colonizers.

Jeff Weintraub

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