In repressive Myanmar, a tiny Jewish community hangs on to the past

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon dates back to the 19th century. (Charles Dunst)


Sammy Samuels, second from right, sings at a Hanukkah event with Burmese leaders. Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Ronen Gilor, is third from left; between them is Phyo Min Thein, the chief minister of the Yangon region. (Charles Dunst)

YANGON, Myanmar (JTA) – There was a Hanukkah party last month in this former capital city and enough guests — over 200 — to surprise an uninvited tourist.

“They’re no Jews here anymore,” the tourist proclaims, confused about the celebration at Yangon’s regal Chatrium Hotel.

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

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

“Well, that’s not nothing – that’s 10 families,” Solomon counters. “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 World War II, 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 nationalized businesses as part of a socialist agenda that would soon run the country into the ground.

Sammy Samuels, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s remaining Jewish community, inside Yangon’s synagogue. (Charles Dunst)

Still, Sammy Samuels, 38, the 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 small community [and that there’s] nothing going on,” Samuels says at the Dec. 7 Hanukkah 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 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 downtown; a skincare shop in the heart of downtown; a paint store across the street from the synagogue.

In the 1920s, the famed British author George Orwell, then a colonial police officer in Burma, recognized 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 tells JTA in an interview. A Jewish community – Orwell’s “gangs” – soon began to flourish, with many, like the Samuels family, coming from Baghdad, Iraq, 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 neighborhood.

“People [here] would not understand what is ‘anti-Semitism,’” says Samuels, whose Burmese name is Aung Soe Lwin. “Thank God, there’s no such a 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 — teenagers, middle-aged and elderly — 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 says. “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.

David Ben-Gurion, left, meets with General Ne Win, then-prime minister of Burma, as it was called, in 1959. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

“The Burmese population, if you tell them ‘Judaism’ they don’t know, but if you tell ‘Israel,’ they feel like Israel is a religion,” Samuels says. “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 through the fall of 2017. During an interview, Ronen Gilor, the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar, declines to comment on this issue.

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

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

Samuels politely opts not to comment on Israel’s arming of Myanmar’s military as well. He does say, however, that the military’s campaign has caused a decline in tourism.

“A lot of people start to boycott traveling 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,” he says. “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 says.

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.)

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of Myanmar’s government, speaks at a business summit in Singapore, Nov. 12, 2018. The former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner has been criticized for her government’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim population. (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

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 says. While others in Myanmar have used WhatsApp to encourage violence against Rohingya (the United Nations said it played “a determining role”), Samuels has used the platform for good.

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

“The Israeli Embassy and us – I would even say it’s a family,” he says.

Gilor echoed those thoughts in an interview.

“It’s a very good thing to have collaboration with Sammy and the Jewish community,” the ambassador tells JTA, calling the community “a bridge” among Myanmar, Israel and the Jewish world.

Gilor is among the Hanukkah 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-organized 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 who appeared to be in his 60s, tells JTA in an interview 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 says. Solomon’s mother is 90, so his father finally concedes – partially due to the Samuels-organized tour.

“This my last chance to come and take back videos and pictures while she can still appreciate them,” Solomon says when asked if he had reservations about visiting Myanmar. “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 Y.U. 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 U.S. and lived a better life,” Samuels says, 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 Hanukkah event was a coup for Samuels.

“Things change,” he says, recalling years when he celebrated the Festival of Lights with fewer than 20 people. “A few years ago, no Burmese people knew of Hanukkah. Now the Buddhists wish me on Facebook ‘happy Hanukkah 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 computerized nor indexed, Solomon complains.

Over 20 years ago, Myanmar announced it would move its Jewish cemetery out of the capital Yangon. It’s still there. (Charles Dunst)

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 gives 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.

Modernity pokes through the cemetery’s historical veneer: A TV satellite protrudes from the caretaker’s home above the graves, and her young associate, who smiles and casually watches me as I wander the grounds, plays Burmese pop music from his smartphone while smoking a cigarette.

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.

Editor’s note: “Call Me Rohingya,” which illuminaes the experiences of the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh through the photographs of Andrew Stanbridge, is on display at the Holocaust History Center at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum through May 31.