Fostering relations

With its changing political climate, Myanmar’s relationship with Israel can now grow stronger.

Yaron Mayer, Israel's ambassador to Myanmar 521 (photo credit: Knue Imai Weinstein)
Yaron Mayer, Israel's ambassador to Myanmar 521
(photo credit: Knue Imai Weinstein)
At least that’s what Yaron Mayer, our ambassador there, believes Yaron Mayer, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), sits quietly in Musmeah Yeshua, a 19th-century synagogue located in the middle of the hectic downtown of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), preparing to celebrate Shabbat.
“I feel lucky to be here during this important period of transition in the country,” says the ambassador. He is referring to last year’s election, which brought the current civil government to power, and to the recent registration as a political party of the National League of Democracy, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Su Kye. This is Mayer’s fourth year of service in Myanmar.
“I am the 20th Israeli ambassador to the country and our diplomatic relationship has always been a strong one,” he continues.
“Both Israel and Myanmar became independent in 1948 and Myanmar was one of the first countries to recognize Israel.”
Since then, a significant number of highranking government officials from both countries, including the first Burmese prime minister U Nu, and first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, as well as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Ben- Zvi and Shimon Peres, have visited each other’s countries. After 1962, when Burma became under the rule of General Ne Win, the interaction between the two countries decreased, but the good relationship has continued.
During the past few years, however, Myanmar’s political climate started slowly changing toward a democratic direction, says Mayer, “And our relationship became active again.” Approximately 150 Burmese engineers, business people, government workers and students visit Israel every year under various programs, such as MASHAV, a cooperation program under the Foreign Ministry. Among the newer programs, there is an idea for archeological student exchange and Israel’s demonstration of its hydrotherapy practices.
“Myanmar people are very eager to learn and have a positive attitude,” points out the ambassador.
According to 2009 United Nations statistics, Myanmar’s literacy rate was 90 percent for women and 95% for men. Israeli tourists visit Myanmar to see golden pagodas and the natural beauty of the country.
“Myanmar is a resource-rich country and has great potential, although there is a very small investment now,” says the ambassador, who expects the Israeli-Myanmar relationship to grow stronger in the future given the positive changes in the Myanmar regime.
By 6 p.m., the sun has set beyond the Yangon River and Moses Samuels, a local resident who maintains the synagogue, the ambassador and I light the Shabbat candles in this Sephardi synagogue. Musmeah Yeshua was built in 1854 by Baghdadi Jews. During the British colonial era, there were 2,500 to 3,000 Jews, mostly businessmen, in Myanmar, but now, there are only 20 left in the entire country.
“There is no anti-Semitism here, but Jews left after WWII for their own reasons,” states Samuels.
Eighty-nine percent of the Myanmar population is Buddhist, but religious minorities live in peaceful coexistence. For example, the synagogue is in the midst of a Muslim neighborhood and the synagogue employees are mostly Muslims.
“Without politics, Jews and Muslims can live together,” says Samuels.
IT IS not possible to strictly follow Jewish dietary laws in Myanmar, although Samuels and his family consider themselves to be Orthodox Jews. His family originally came from Iraq as merchants, and Samuels was born in Yangon. The cuts of meat closest to being kosher are halal, which Samuels buys from local Muslim butchers. However, when the synagogue hosts 40 Orthodox tourists from New York City in December, Samuels is committed to bringing in sealed kosher food from Bangkok by airplane.
Aside from taking care of the synagogue, Samuels runs a travel agency, Myanmar Shalom, in an attempt to link Jews around the world to the Myanmar community.
The synagogue has not had a permanent rabbi for many years, although a Chabad rabbi living in Bangkok visits Yangon several times a year. It has also been difficult to get a minyan together since only 20 Jews live in Yangon, including the families of the Israeli Embassy. However, the Samuelses are committed to staying and maintaining the synagogue and the tiny Jewish community.
Asked how his son and two daughters would find spouses without intermarrying, Samuels responded, “I will arrange marriages for my two daughters. Their husbands don’t have to be necessarily Orthodox, but have to be Jewish.”
Musmeah Yeshua is also used as a place to explain Judaism and Israel to Burmese audiences, according to Mayer, who brings groups to the synagogue from time to time. It is one of 188 sites on the Yangon City Development Council’s list of heritage buildings. The ambassador also commemorates Holocaust in Yangon together with the local United Nations office and German and French embassies.
Israel does not provide monetary assistance to the synagogue, except at times of disaster, such as cyclones, although private Jewish organizations do provide financial support. However, the Israeli embassy always stays connected with the local Jewish community and is ready to provide government-level assistance if needed.