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Tensions running high. Myanmar Photo: AP
Tensions running high. Myanmar Photo: AP
 
 

Myanmar's Jews live in fear

Country's 20 remaining Jews fear for their small community as tensions between military junta, Buddhist monks rise. 'Nobody knows what might happen tomorrow,' they say

Itamar Eichner
Published: 10.03.07, 10:10 / Israel Jewish Scene

Very little is left of the Jewish community in Myanmar. At its peak in the 1940s, the community in former Burma numbered some 4,000 Jews, mostly of Iranian, Iraqi, and Indian origin. Now there are only 20 of them left.

 

Burma's Jews started leaving it during World War II. Most fled when Japan invaded the country, choosing to immigrate to the United States and Israel.

 

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In 1962, after General Ne Win's military coup, the community dwindled again; more Jews left in 1964, after the military regime began nationalizing private businesses.

 

Burma's remaining Jews are concentrated in the capital, Yangon and in the country's second largest city – Mandalay. There is no community life to speak of and any interaction takes place during Shabbat and the holidays, when they meet in the synagogue for prayers.

 

"The Jewish community here lives in fear. Nobody knows what might happen tomorrow," Sami Samuels – one of Yangon's Jews – told Yedioth Ahronoth.

 

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"These are the saddest Rosh Hashana and Sukkot we've had in a very long time… we had to adjust the prayer services to the military's curfew, the streets are crawling with soldiers and the situation here is very unstable. The Jews, like many others here, fear for their lives," said Samuels.

 

The tensions between the military junta and Buddhist monks have made the Jewish community take extra precautions and they have recently hired a private security company, to guard Yangon's only synagogue.

 

"The unrest here makes it hard for us to even find the quorum needed for prayers," said Samuels. "There are usually a lot of tourists here this time of year, but this year, because of the riots, there are very few of them. Everywhere you look all you see are people rushing home," he added.

 

The community is so few in numbers, he said, that they sometimes find themselves celebrating some of the holidays with the Buddhist monks.

 

His father, Moshe Samuels, is the Gabai – the manager – of Yangon's synagogue, which was built in 1854. Unlike his son, Samuels senior is slightly more optimistic: "The military junta here has no grudge against the Jews. We stay out of politics so what goes around has no real bearing on us.

 

"It's true that finding a quorum for prayers has been difficult lately," he added, "but our friends in the Israeli embassy help us with that."

 

The tensions, said the two, are not lost on Myanmar's Muslim community, which fears for its existence as well. "We all pray that the UN negotiations will help restore the peace and quiet to this country," they said.

 

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