The Origins of Taiwan’s Jewish Community

The Origins of Taiwan’s Jewish Community
Photo Credit: Ed Tucker

What you need to know

In the early days of establishing a communal presence in Taiwan, Jews faced both reluctance toward religious inclusion and a Saudi intervention.

Talk to any Jewish person who has spent any time in Taiwan and they’ll probably tell you how easy it is to be Jewish here. Not only is Taiwan an easy place to live, the locals kind and welcoming, but without Europe and the United States’s tradition of antisemitism, Taiwan feels safer than most places to be a Jew, though fewer than a thousand of us live here.

Today, Taiwan’s Jews are becoming spoiled for choice when it comes to Jewish life. Taipei has a conservative synagogue and an Orthodox Chabad, and later this year, the country’s first Jewish community center will open in the city. Israeli cuisine can be found in several major cities on Taiwan’s west coast.

But Jewish life has only recently become so plentiful, and the founding of the now 43-year-old community wasn’t straightforward.

“There were a couple people who said why, what do we need it for? Maybe we’ll bring attention to ourselves,” says Fiona Chitayat, one of the founding members of the community. “But we decided to have a Jewish community, and we decided to make it legal.”

It was the late 1970s, and a small group had gathered to discuss the possibility of forming their own Jewish organization that would be registered with the Taipei city government. Since the 1950s, Jews had met at the American military chapel on Zhongshan North Road, open to military families as well as others living and working in Taiwan.

“Someone took the picture of the cross and Jesus down on Fridays,” Chitayat says.

Members were sensing support from the American military would soon come to an end, meaning they would no longer be able to use its chapel. The group hoped to take advantage of the Treaty of Commerce, Friendship and Navigation — the treaty between the U.S. and the Republic of China, which allowed Americans to set up places of worship in Taiwan — before it expired. One member, Michael Friedman, with the help of Taiwanese lawyers at his firm, Yahng & Roles, drafted the application to register as a foundation.

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Photo Credit: Ed Tucker
This photograph, along with the others in this article, shows the Taiwan Jewish Community at its location in the late 1980s, not at the original location discussed in the article.

But the ROC government’s concern with its own interests, both domestically and abroad, formed an obstacle.

“Some of the questions that were asked of us were: ‘Where are your missionaries?’ ‘If you don’t have missionaries, why do you need to incorporate here?’ ‘Do you know, we have very good and long-standing relationships with the kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?’” Friedman recalls.

It took some time to convince the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a Jewish synagogue would be no threat to Taiwan’s security. Under martial law, citizens still had a relative degree of religious freedom in comparison to the bans of religion in the People’s Republic of China, but were constantly under surveillance due to concerns about political opposition.

In writing, Friedman laid out the peaceful history of Jews in China, who had lived there for hundreds of years in Kaifeng, as well as in Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin and other major cities in the first half of the 20th century. He even included registration documents from the B’nai El Congregation in Missouri to show that “Judaism has a long history and is a religion with a large number of believers.”

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Photo Credit: Ed Tucker
Haim Dvir, a leader in the Taiwan Jewish Community, pictured in the late 1980s.

“Responding to their concerns vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” Friedman says, “I bluntly told him that we were a nonpolitical religious community — all we wanted was a place to gather to pray and support the religious education of our community’s children.”

Finally, in 1978, the application was approved and the Taiwan Jewish Community (TJC) was registered with the Taipei city government as a foundation. Three years later, the government’s fears of upsetting Saudi Arabia came to fruition.

In 1981, the Saudis, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) documents show, were apparently tipped off about the Jewish center when several cars had parked all the way up the street and reached the Saudi embassy. To them, the appearance of an established ‘club’ for Jews in Taiwan, right down the street from its own embassy, was potential evidence that Taiwan was collaborating with Israel behind its back, and was putting high-security dealings at risk.

“Some people have interfered with the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia. These people may be Israelis, so they are very concerned,” a MOFA memo states. Notes from a meeting attended by representatives from Taiwan’s security, information and foreign affairs departments on ‘the matter of the Jewish church’ stressed that the situation “could lead to severe consequences, so should be taken care of properly by the government.”

Given the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia — the only country in the Arab world that officially recognized Taiwan at the time, and a major source of oil — the matter was taken seriously and addressed quickly. MOFA apparently sent officers to pressure the community center’s landlord to not renew the lease for another term. By the end of that year, the Jews had moved to a different location.

In promises to the Saudis detailed in MOFA memos, MOFA also assured the Saudis that it will label the TJC as a Jewish “church” rather than a “club,” and limit the numbers of Israelis entering Taiwan. MOFA could not confirm that these actions were actually taken as a result of the matter, though Israelis living in Taiwan at the time recall having to leave the country frequently to get a new visa. Documents also show assurances from the ROC that it was not dealing with Israel, although it was known at the time that significant arms and defense deals were taking place.

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Photo Credit: Ed Tucker

“Taiwan was being secretive about its ties with Israel partly at Israel’s request,” said Meron Medzini, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has extensively researched Israel’s ties with Asia. “Israel was trying to establish ties with the mainland and feared that publication of news about its deals with Taiwan would anger the mainland.” Israel did not want to make public its ties with an authoritarian country, Medzini said.

The situation seems to have been just a blip in Taiwan-Saudi relations. According to a 1981 article in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, some community members were “disturbed at suggestions in certain quarters that...the Jewish community should adopt a ‘lower profile.’” There were concerns among members that they would face administrative obstacles in renewing their license at a new location, but moving to a new location far from the Saudi embassy seemed to alleviate concerns. It was the only time members can recall feeling under pressure by the government in any way.

Today, a new generation leads Taiwan’s Jewish community, now located in downtown Taipei, but it still maintains traditions established in the early days. When the center was first legally registered in 1978, a Mr. Safdeye, a Syrian-Jewish businessman in Taiwan at the time, made a donation of US$10,000 under two conditions: that there should be a Sunday school for children, and it should maintain kosher rules. Both provisions are maintained to this day.

Bart Darshorst helped translate documents for this article.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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