Kaifeng and the Diversification of Freund’s Cottage Conversion Industry

By David Ramírez

Source: William Charles White, The Chinese Jews (1942). "Reading the Torah: Three persons took part in this ceremony. The reader wore robes prescribed for dress occasions,  and had a cloth wound round his cap to simulate a turban, and hanging down behind like that of the Mohammedan use of today."

Source: William Charles White, The Chinese Jews (1942). “Reading the Torah: Three persons took part in this ceremony. The reader wore robes prescribed for dress occasions,
and had a cloth wound round his cap to simulate a turban, and hanging down behind like that of the Mohammedan use of today.”

Since the creation of the state of Israel, one of its primary concerns has been to maintain a demographic majority to ensure the so-called Jewish character of the state. Since the Jewish Diaspora was not exactly enthusiastic or in a hurry to move in en masse, Israeli nationalist planners sought clever, though very inconsiderate, ways to lure in new citizens.

The first step was to expel as many Arabs as possible from the UN sanctioned borders of the New “Jewish” State, three quarters to be exact. The second phase was to create an intolerable environment for Arab Jews that would force them to flee what had been their hosted homeland for literally millennia. Not thinking that the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs would incense the indignation of Arabs enough, it was also necessary to artificially create an environment of irremediable insecurity among Arab Jewish communities, as the Lavon Affair has clearly shown, to force Arab Jews to flee their ancestral communities.

The plan worked jolly well. The Israeli state got the Jews needed to create an artificial majority, a much needed cordon sanitaire of Arab Jewish transit camps to enclose the Palestinian Arabs and keep them in check, a readably exploitable third-world country work force and military cannon fodder, as well a scapegoat to justify the Israeli narrative of the persecuted Jew.

When that crescent moon fountain dried out to a trickle, then Russians and Ethiopians of either full or partial Jewish ancestry were to follow. Adding to an already heaping cauldron of Israeli fragmented inequalities, the new waves of immigrants, many not recognized as Jewish per the halakháh and the Israeli rabbinical establishment, brought yet another layer of kafkian complexities to Israeli life and society.

Israeli nationalist imagination would bring us yet another gift in Michael Freund, a former Communication deputy for Netanyahu’s administration, the recovery of “Lost Jews.” Not quite the lost tribes of Israel, but pretty close.

As anyone familiar with Freund’s post-government trajectory, he began his new career as the savior of “lost Jews” with the little known organization called Amishav. Amishav had already been working with an obscure group who claimed to be part of a lost tribe who called themselves the “Bnei Menashe” by the time Freund came on board. As reported by Greg Myre in the New York Times[1] in 2003, Freund was very candid about the purpose of his operations, by admitting that “his group [Amishav] wants immigrants for demographic reasons.” Furthermore, it is important to note that in this newer phase of ‘olim recruits, people do not necessarily need to be tied to a historic group with a Jewish background. They just need to claim that they are. As the very NTY article continues,

«The Bnei Menashe did not practice Judaism before British missionaries converted them to Christianity about a century ago. They followed an animist religion typical of Southeast Asian hill tribes. But that religion did seem to include some practices that were similar to Bible stories, said Hillel Halkin, an Israeli journalist who has written a book about them, “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.”

It is not clear what prompted the Bnei Menashe to begin practicing Judaism. In the 1950’s they were still Christians, but they began adopting Old Testament laws, like observing the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws. By the 1970’s, they were practicing Judaism, Mr. Halkin said. There was no sign of any outside influence. The Bnei Menashe wrote letters to Israeli officials in the late 1970’s seeking more information on Judaism. Then Amishav contacted them, and the group began bringing the Beni Menashe to Israel in the early 1990’s.»

In later years, Freund expanded his operations to help the people who claim to be Conversos, descendants of Sephardim forced to convert to Catholicism during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Along this vein, other lesser known historic communities have followed. The latest iteration has been the Jews of Kaifeng.

No certain information is known about the origins of the Kaifeng community. Professor Xu Xin, of Nanjing University, places its probable origins to Jewish merchants of the Silk Road during Talmudic times.[2] According to Leslie Donald, the remnants of Kaifeng’s liturgy firmly link it with Talmudic traditions and Maimonides’ prescriptions for the prayer book, [3] suggesting a Yemenite or Sephardic origin. This Sephardic connection extends to the 19th century, as told by to Dr. Beverly Friend,

«During the 1860’s the Sephardic Jews of Shanghai became interested in the community in Kaifeng and in 1900 started a Shanghai Society for the Rescue of the Chinese Jews (at that time said to consist of 50 families of about 250 people) and one member of the society wrote a letter begging the Jews not to sell any more of the scrolls than they had already done.  They also offered to help them rebuild the temple.  Nothing much came of all.»[4]

Fast forward to the 21st century, and you will hear little or nothing of Jewish liturgy or Torah scrolls in aid to reconstitute said communities in the Religious Zionist world of Michael Freund. Instead, we get a concern on Jewish demographics, as stated earlier by the NYT. For us all too familiar with Zionist discourse, this specifically means Jewish demographics in the Land of Israel. This idea is even overtly expressed in the website of the organization that Freund currently runs, Shavei Israel:

“The Jewish people are currently facing a demographic and spiritual crisis of unprecedented proportions. Our numbers are shrinking, Jewish commitment is waning, and more and more young people are leaving the fold.”[5]

In the section “Our Activities” of Shavei’s website, the connection to aliyah, Jewish migration to Israel, is unmistakable.

In a recent publication by Ynetnews.com about the Kaifeng community, one of many of Freund’s journalistic Zionist venues, the right buttons are pushed to tap into the nationalistic consciousness of Jews. The sub-header says it all: “Three members of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng who made aliya five years ago are about to enlist in the IDF, and all three want to join the fabled combat unit.”

What is important for the article is to underline and make in bold letter are the facts that these three featured young men have (1) moved to the state of Israel, and (2) been made soldiers to protect “Jewish state;” is it important they are now practicing rabbinic Jews? Meh, not so much! In fact, many of such articles representing this said communities of “lost Jews” are framed in ways important to the Religious Zionist narrative. If it is not the lachrymose side of Jewish history, then it is the valiant and robust force of the New Jew.

Being the brainchild of 19th c. European colonialism, “Zionism” sought to reframe history in its own image, and by consequence that of Jews themselves. As experienced by Arab Jews at the hand of Zionists, this entailed erasing their past identity in place of a new and “improved” one: the New Jew. The very use of the term of “Arab Jew,” which once had its own Hebrew equivalent musta‘arabim, is anathema in Zionist discourse; replacing it with Jews from Arab or Islamic lands, semantics repeated in lock step with Zionists by Arab Jews themselves. Yet, this erasure is not complete without the full cooperation of the persecuted.

Such instances of self-erasure happen at a deep psycho-sociological level when the persecuted identify with the persecutor. As brilliantly explained by Rabbi Faur in his Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí,

«The concrete sense of all social and psychological interaction — as anti-Semitism happens to be — is determined not only by the aggressor, but also by the victim. Far from being a passive element, the victim is who interprets the aggressive act and determines its concrete sense. In his masterful opus Reflexions sur la question juive (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre allows us to see the level of “cooperation” that can be established between the aggressor and the victim: They both stimulate and identify as the “adversary” and the cause of his own disgraces. As we shall see, they mutually use this as a scapegoat to evade all personal responsibility. Sometimes, as Borges dexterously points out, the aggressor ends-up acquiring the identity of the victim.  In other occasions, thus demonstrated by Canetti, the victim acquires the role of the aggressor, in this manner passing the tormenting “sting” to others.»[6]

In a Sephardic Heritage Update exclusive, a volunteer instructor in Kaifeng (China) working on behalf of the Sino-Judaic Institute, and direct witness to Shavei’s operations there, uncannily reveals how Shavei’s colonialist impulses work internally from the community itself.

«The biggest giveaway of a colonial perspective is the statement “becoming rank-and-file Israelis”. It reeks of the “New Jew” mentality that early Mizrahi immigrants were all too familiar with, and it especially stands out in an era where Israelis are seeking various methods to become non-conformist!»

«Compare and contrast Shavei’s colonialism in the Sephardic community, India, and Kaifeng. Although the experiences of the former two can be compared to Sub-Saharan Africa, where the colonized are pulled into a parasitic relationship with the colonizers, the last one is more akin to the British Raj in India (which is ironic because it is certainly not the case of the Bene Menashe who are actually in India!!), where the colonial power has to exercise its domain though local leaders, each with his own vested interests. In absence of a unified nation (in our case, community), the British could only cater to largely individual whims in order to maximize their own colonial power.»

« Highly unlike the Bene Menashe, and likely something more resembling Belmonte, Portugal (where Shavei has been involved in years prior), Shavei is not building a community with institutions. What they have done instead is operate within the parameters of a nominal “school” established by other foreign volunteers in years prior, and from there they train selected individuals from the community (all 18-30), all with aspirations to leave the country – excuse me, I meant “return to the Promised Land”, to become good olim (i.e. pass the Rabbanut conversion exam like the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam!) and eventually plain old Israelis with nothing more than an amusing anecdote about how they’re “technically” Chinese. The desire to make aliyah is not a community-wide aspiration, despite how they always portray it, because there is no real community, but merely a loose confederation of special interests. The results are patently obvious when one considers the current state of the olim from Kaifeng, who, after their tightly-controlled conversion and acculturation program, have gone their separate ways and do not constitute an actual community. In essence, Shavei is only fulfilling the goals of very utilitarian individuals, and by sapping away at the young population, they are destroying the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng. That is what I came to put a stop to. Truth be told, I would not mind if they did all end up in Israel, but on the condition that it was as a solidly built community, keeping the traditions, and en masse. As it stands now, I only see a slow bleed.»

These are the ways Freund has masterfully up the ante of his predecessors. Having run out of European, Middle-Eastern and North African Jews to move to Israel, plus having the stubborn reluctance of Diaspora Jews to do so—especially those of the United States who are greatest in numbers, and not wanting to repeat the mistakes of those who brought the Russians and the Ethiopians, Freund has made the taboo-subject of Jewish proselytizing into a palatable, if not quasi-acceptable, idea mediated by the notion of being part of a “lost tribe.”

Better yet, these new ‘olim already enter the Zionist gates fully reconfigured as New Jews, with all the radical elements of Religious Zionism embedded: New age Sicariim.

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, already took notice of the potential bounty this may represent. According to Isabel Kershner and Raphael Minder reporting for the NYT, Sharansky “estimated that there were millions of descendants worldwide of ‘conversos,’ Jews who converted to Catholicism under duress in medieval Spain, including hundreds of thousands who were exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots… The state of Israel must ease the way for their return ”[7]

Don’t get me wrong. I think supporting proselytes to Judaism is a beautiful thing and sorely in need to be encouraged among all Jews; however, not for the wrong reasons.

It is extremely important to underline, and understand from the get go, that the Israeli rabbinical establishment does not consider these communities that Freund pretends to help as halakhic Jews; in other words, they are treated as Gentiles (Heb., goyím). The concept of “return” (Heb., teshubáh) has a very specific meaning and procedures in Jewish Law that involves halakhic Jews only. Proselytes (Heb., gerím) do not “return” to Judaism; they are considered “new born” into Judaism. So much so that gerím no longer hold the same legal duties and relationships to their biological parents as when they were Gentiles.

Worse yet: The operating assumption in Jewish Law to become a Proselyte to Judaism is to love Toráh for its own sake, not for ulterior motives. In fact, part of the conversion process is to determine if the candidate has an ulterior motive, like wanting to marry a Jewess. One of the reasons prominently displayed time and time again in Freund’s propaganda machine is the desire of his “returnees” to move to the Land of Israel. And it would be worth remembering that of the 613 precepts in Jewish Law according to Rabbinic Tradition, none state that it is an obligation to move to the Land of Israel. We have the explicit precept to marry an Israelite, but not to move to the Land of Israel!

The use of the word “return” by Freund’s organization, and others like his is a Machiavellian semantic manipulation that has the aim to soften the blow of what it really is: An open invitation to mass proselytization. This is a subject that is not only taboo in Judaism, but it is severely restricted in Jewish Law.

Freund’s ultimate aims are not to encourage the observance of Judaism among Jews grown distant to the religion, which would be commendable, but to provide another potential channel to continue maintaining an artificial majority, a much needed cordon sanitaire of [immigrant] camps to enclose the Palestinian Arabs and keep them in check, a readably exploitable third-world country work force and military cannon fodder, as well a scapegoat to justify the Israeli narrative of the persecuted Jew.

Who are next? Christian Zionists??!! Please remain tuned.


[1] Myre, Greg. “Lost Tribe’ Finds Itself on Front Lines of Mideast Conflict.” The New York Times. December 22 2003. Web. December 7 2014.

[2] Xin, Xu. The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion. KTAV Publishing House (Jersey City, 2003), pp. 8-9.

[3] Leslie, Donald. The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng. Brill (Leiden, 1972), p. 20.

[4] Friend, Beverly. “A Visit to Kaifeng.” Haruth.com. Web. December 7 2014.

[5] Shavei Israel. “Our Goals.” Shavei.org. 2014. Web. December 7 2014.

[6] Faur, José. “Antisemitismo en la mente sefaradí.” Estrato dalla «Rassegna Mensile di Israel». August 1983 (Ijar-Elul 5743), p. 394. My translation and bold letters.

[7] Kreshner, Isabel and Minder Raphael. “Prospect of Spanish Citizenship Appeals to Descendants of Jews Expelled in 1492.” Nytimes.com. February 13 2014. Web. December 7 2014.

4 responses to “Kaifeng and the Diversification of Freund’s Cottage Conversion Industry

  1. To add a note on “pushing the right nationalist buttons”… It looks like not even the prospective soldiers share the same sentiment that is being pushed. As was pointed out:
    “I am very happy to be getting the opportunity to make new friends in the unit and become part of Israeli society through the army.”

    Doesn’t sound too nationalistic to me. It seems that Shavei’s propagandists forgot to vet this quote.

    • Hello Anonymous. Thank you for your reply. “Pushing buttons” is an English idiomatic expression that means, “to do exactly the right thing to get people to act the way you want.” Whose buttons? Not the Kaifeng soldiers’, but the Jewish nationalistic consciousness, which in the end would mean the approval of Shavei’s actions. Be well.

  2. Pingback: La politización sionista de los conversos y sus riesgos | David Ramírez·

  3. Pingback: The Zionist politization of conversos and its risks | David Ramírez·

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