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Myanmar (Burma)

Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. A former British colony, Burma became an independent republic in January 1948 and democratic rule lasted until 1962. Since the 1962 military coup d'état led by General Ne Win, the nation now has one of the world's oldest military dictatorships.

Jews from Calcutta, Cochin, and Persia may have settled in various towns of Burma in the first half of the 19th century. Specifically Baghdadis from Calcutta with business interests – often based on opium – further east would stop at Rangoon (modern day Yangon) on the way to Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and Shanghai. The first Jew known definitely to have settled in Burma was Solomon Gabirol, probably a *Bene Israel , who served as commissar in King Alaungpaya's army. A Jewish merchant, Goldenberg, from Romania, engaged in the teakwood trade and accumulated great wealth. Solomon Reineman of Galicia arrived in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, in 1851 as a supplier for the British army and opened stores in various places. His Masot Shelomo ("Solomon's Travels," 1884) contains a long chapter on Burma, and is the first Hebrew account of the country and its towns.

Serious Jewish settlement in Burma didn't begin until after the British conquered Rangoon in 1852. In 1857, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was established in Rangoon, first taking the form of a wooden structure and later in 1893–6 rebuilt in stone. A second synagogue, Beth El, was built in 1932. The Jewish community, scattered in several places in the country, particularly Mandalay (where there are still a few Jews), Bassein, Aykab, and Toungyi, included members of the *Bene Israel group from Bombay, Arabic-speaking Jews from Calcutta, and Jews from Cochin and other parts of the Oriental Diaspora.

With World War II and the Japanese invasion of Burma, community life was disrupted and many Jews fled to Calcutta or Ereẓ Israel after bombings of Rangoon began on December 24, 1941. After the war, about 500 Burmese Jews returned, but later they left the country. In 2010, only about 20 Jews remained in Yangon, although the Musmeah Yeshua was still maintained through the efforts of Moses Samuels, the patriarch of Yangon's Jewish community since 1978.

See also: Synagogues of the World - Myanmar (Burma)

Movement of Jews to and from Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Movement of Jews to and from Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Lost Jews"

From the beginning of the 19th century, first Christian missionaries and later some Jews found reason to believe that the populous Karen tribe of Burma was descended from Jewish stock. Above all it was the cult of the High God Yuwah or Ywa, reminiscent of the Hebrew YHWH, which excited Christians and later Jews and inspired them with the certainty that here must be some long-lost relic of the ancient religion of the Hebrews. Until recent times, when the cause of the Karen was taken up by Amishav, Christian and particularly Baptist missionaries were the most fervent supporters of the idea. Nonetheless some Jews too were convinced of similarities. In a Bombay Jewish journal, The Jewish Tribune, of April 1934, there appeared the first of a series of articles written by a member of the Bene Israel by the name of J.E. Joshua. Joshua, who was based in Rangoon, called his article "The Lost Jews of Burma." "They live in forests and villages and hills," he wrote. "They hunt animals, grow paddy and keep elephants…. In fact, the Chinese Jews, who originally migrated from Persia to China, are to-day within the confines of the land of golden pagodas, spirits and white elephants but known as Karens."

J. Saphir, Even Sappir, 2 (1874), 114; S. Reineman, Masot Shelomo, ed. by W. Schorr (1885), 192–204; D.S. Sassoon, History of the Jews in Baghdad (1949); D. Hacohen, Yoman Burmah (1963); M. Sharett, Masot be-Asyah (1957).T. Parfitt, The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth (2002); Jane's Intelligence Review (March 1, 2000). Moment Magazine.