Myanmar’s Jewish leader is still hopeful of a revival

CEMETERY: Myanmar announced it would move its Jewish cemetery out of the capital Yangon 20 years ago. It’s still there


THERE was a Chanucah party last month in Myanmar’s former capital city of Yangon and enough guests — more than 200 — to surprise an uninvited tourist.

“There are no Jews here any more,” the tourist proclaimed, confused about the celebration at Yangon’s regal Chatrium Hotel.

“Yes there are,” replied Ari Solomon, a guest from Australia.

“No, they said there are 10 families,” the tourist responded.

“Well, that’s not nothing – that’s 10 families,” Solomon countered. “That’s a lot. You go back to my hometown, Calcutta, and there are lucky to be 16 Jews, let alone 10 families.”

Indeed, Myanmar’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 20 people. Most of the Jews had fled when Japan invaded the country in the Second World War, as the Axis power distrusted them for their perceived political alignment with the British.

The majority who remained left in the mid-1960s, when the new regime nationalised businesses as part of a socialist agenda that would soon run the country into the ground.

Still, Sammy Samuels, the 38-year-old de facto leader of this Southeast Asian nation’s remaining Jewish community, has held out hope for its future, if not a revival.

In recent years, his father, Moses, had maintained the community, opening the door of Yangon’s sole synagogue daily in the hopes of welcoming tourists.

Following his father’s death in 2015, Samuels has taken over, embracing social media and tourism to keep the community alive.

But while he has replenished the dried-up well of history with the fresh water of modernity, Myanmar’s fraught politics — most notably the crime perpetrated by its military against the Rohingya Muslims — are bringing a downturn in tourism and putting those gains at risk.

“[Everyone] thinks that we’re a small community [and that there’s] nothing going on,” Samuels said at the Chanucah celebration. “But we have this kind of event, the government people come — the embassy, friends and family, too.”

The Jewish community here grew rapidly from the mid-1800s through to 1942. At its peak, 3,000 Jews called Myanmar home when it was still known as Burma.

Some rose to local power, like David Sofaer, who in the 1930s served as the mayor of Yangon, then known as Rangoon. Myanmar at the time was still a component of the British Empire.

Jewish restaurants, pharmacies and schools once marked the city’s streets. While these businesses have dissipated, Stars of David still adorn some buildings in Yangon: a school nearly 40 minutes from the city centre; a skincare shop in the heart of the city; a paint store across the street from the synagogue.

In the 1920s, author George Orwell, then a colonial police officer in Burma, recognised the Jewish presence there, albeit cynically. He condemned British operations in the country for being “a device for giving trade monopolies to the English — or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen”.

“My great-grandfather came to Rangoon around the mid-19th century,” Samuels said. A Jewish community – Orwell’s “gangs” — soon began to flourish, with many, like the Samuels family, coming from Baghdad in search of economic prosperity.

Today, the 19th century Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon sits solitary in this land of golden pagodas and remains wholly unguarded in the city’s main Muslim suburb.

“People [here] would not understand what is ‘antisemitism’,” says Samuels, whose Burmese name is Aung Soe Lwin. “Thank God, there’s no such word here.”

The owners of the shops surrounding the synagogue — mostly men wearing traditional Burmese longyi and Muslim kufi and thawb — are not hawking Judaica, but superglue and paint, among other utility products.

Spitting the residue from their chewed betel nut, these shopkeepers stain the street a crimson red.

“Five buildings away, we have a mosque. And then right in front of us is the Buddhist temple,” Samuels said. “What a combination.”

Samuels credits this respect across Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups as directly tied to Israel.

Joe Freeman explains in Tablet magazine that Burma was Israel’s “first friend” in Asia, as both countries secured independence from the British in 1948.

Burma’s first prime minister, U Nu, had a “soft spot for Israel” and was close with David Ben-Gurion, his Israeli counterpart.

U Nu was the first prime minister of any country to visit the Jewish state.

“The Burmese population, if you tell them ‘Judaism’ they don’t know, but if you tell them ‘Israel,’ they feel like Israel is a religion,” Samuels said. “They fully respect Israel.”

But Yangon’s religious diversity, which has long bestowed Jews with safety, is not reflective of Myanmar at large.

The majority of the country remains off limits for tourists due to raging ethnic conflicts; Jews historically lived mostly in Yangon and Mandalay.

In 2016, the Myanmar military ramped up its long-running persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, whom most Burmese regard as outsiders and some as terrorists.

The military’s barbarism of the community includes torching villages, throwing babies into fires, decapitating young boys and mass rape. Some 1.1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar; thousands are believed to have been killed in what a United Nations investigator called an ongoing genocide.

People in Yangon, from the Bamar ethnic majority to its Muslims, are disconnected from, if not outwardly antagonistic toward, the Rohingya in the Rakhine State. Burmese social media is awash with anti-Rohingya posts.

Samuels, perhaps due to his Western education and Jewish understanding of the horrors of ethnic scapegoating, speaks more empathetically about the Rohingya.

He even uses the word “Rohingya,” although the Israeli government, in line with Myanmar’s government’s preference, refuses to do the same.

Israel allowed its arms firms to sell weapons to Myanmar’s military until autumn 2017. During an interview, Ronen Gilor, the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar, declined to comment on this issue.

“It’s an unfortunate event what happened in the Rakhine State,” Samuels said cautiously, likely because of Myanmar’s limited freedom of speech. “We really sympathise with them.”

The American Holocaust Museum recently classified the crimes against the Rohingya as genocide.

Samuels added: “A lot of people start to boycott travelling to Myanmar, but when we say tourism, it’s not just about us, a tour company, or the hotel or airline.

“It involves the tour guide, taxi driver, hotel bellman. They should not be punished for what happened.”

“When you come here as a tourist, you see things different.”

Even when Myanmar was a pariah state, Moses Samuels had long helped Jewish tourists interested in visiting the country, answering their queries regarding accommodations, flights and restaurants. Father and son eventually turned it into a business: Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours.

“Thank God, since 2011, the country start[ed] changing unbelievably” and business began “booming,” the younger Samuels said.

This increased business corresponded with a series of political, economic and administrative reforms pursued by Myanmar’s military junta.

The junta even released from house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate who spent nearly 15 years in some form of imprisonment and now runs the country’s civilian government.

(She has since drawn criticism for her unwillingness to stand up for the Rohingya, although she has no control over the military).

A photo of Sammy Samuels and his family with Suu Kyi remains part of a photo display outside the synagogue.

Samuels says that since 2011, social media has played a key role in strengthening his community.

“We have a WhatsApp group, ‘Yangon Jews,’” he said. While others in Myanmar have used WhatsApp to encourage violence against Rohingya, Samuels has used the platform for good.

And beyond social media, Samuels praised the Israeli embassy for contributing to Yangon’s Jewish community.

“The Israeli embassy and us — I would even say it’s a family,” he said.

Gilor echoed those thoughts. The ambassador said: “It’s a very good thing to have collaboration with Sammy and the Jewish community”, calling the community “a bridge” among Myanmar, Israel and the Jewish world.

Gilor is among the Chanucah celebration’s VIP guests, as is Phyo Min Thein, the chief minister of Yangon.

Other leaders, including those from the local interfaith dialogue and Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i and Hindu communities, are on hand, too.

Two Myanmar Shalom-organised tour groups — one of Israelis and one of Jews with familial histories in Myanmar — account for the overwhelming majority of the night’s Jewry.

Solomon, the Australian guest, said that his mother was born in Burma. During the Japanese invasion she fled to Kolkata, India.

Solomon was born in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, and neither his mother nor anyone from his immediate family had ever returned to Burma.

“My father forbade us from coming back because of the military junta,” Solomon said.

Solomon’s mother is 90, so his father finally concedes — partially due to the Samuels-organised tour.

“This my last chance to come and take back videos and pictures while she can still appreciate them,” Solomon added.

“This is my only chance. She came alive once I arrived in Burma and rang back.”

Her caretakers “wheeled her around to Dad’s iPad, and we spoke and she was so happy”.

Samuels once pursued opportunities beyond Myanmar’s stifled borders, attending Yeshiva University and working for the American Jewish Congress in New York City.

A Jewish visitor to Yangon had helped him get into YU and obtain a full scholarship. Samuels would have been unable to obtain such an education in Myanmar, as the nation’s universities were closed intermittently for years as part of a military effort to bulwark repeated student revolutions.

“I could’ve moved to America and lived a better life,” Samuels said, explaining why he returned home following his father’s 2015 death.

“But our main mission here is very simple: We don’t want any Jewish visitor coming to this country to be a stranger.”

By that measure, the Chanucah event was a coup for Samuels.

“Things change,” he said, recalling years when he celebrated the Festival of Lights with fewer than 20 people. “A few years ago, no Burmese people knew of Chanucah. Now the Buddhists wish me on Facebook ‘happy Chanucah Sammy!’”

And while the synagogue is ranked third on TripAdvisor among Yangon’s “things to do,” Samuels remains incapable of securing a minyan without assistance from tourists.

Another sign of decay is Yangon’s Jewish cemetery: Unlike its counterpart in Kolkata, it is neither computerised nor indexed.

In 1997, the Myanmar government announced its intentions to move the cemetery out of Yangon, but never followed through. The cemetery remains hidden on a hill that some stray dogs have clearly claimed as their territory; a sign outside proclaims it to be only accessible “with permission from Myanmar Jewish Community”.

Samuels gave me such permission by jotting down a phrase in Burmese on a business card, which I hand to the elderly woman who guards the cemetery and appears to live on its grounds.

Instead of stones placed by visitors, debris comprised largely of shattered Hebrew-lettered gravestones sits atop the few intact graves.

As Samuels creates a modern community in Myanmar, the physical memory of its Burmese predecessor continues to crumble.

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