In Repressive Myanmar, the Tiny Jewish Community Enjoys Toleration

Jan. 15 2019

In Myanmar’s capital city Yangon, some 200 people, including the city’s chief minister and representatives of five local religious communities, attended a Hanukkah party this past December. Only about twenty Jews live in the city, but they enjoy tolerance, negligible anti-Semitism, and good relations with the local Muslim minority—who are spared the murderous persecution to which their coreligionists of the Rohingya ethnicity have been subjected. Charles Dunst writes:

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 and remained part of the British empire. Some rose to local power, like David Sofaer, who in the 1930s served as the mayor of Yangon, then known as Rangoon.

Jewish restaurants, pharmacies, and schools once marked the city’s streets. While these businesses have faded away, 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. . . .

Most of the Jews 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 of those 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. . . .

In the 1920s, the famed British author George Orwell, then a colonial police officer in Burma, recognized the Jewish presence there [when 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.” . . . . Today, the [still-functioning] 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.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Burma, East Asian Jewry, George Orwell, Jewish World, Muslim-Jewish relations, Synagogues

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat