Judaism in Myanmar

Burma was once home to a thriving Jewish diaspora community, which at one point numbered over two thousand, and which was part of a much larger regional community stretching from India to China. The integration of Burma into the British Empire meant that it was governed by a common international law, the Pax Britannica, which facilitated regulated trade between members of the tightly knit and widespread Jewish community linked by family, language, and faith.

The Musmeah Yeshua, Rangoon’s synagogue built in 1893, was the center of Jewish life in Myanmar until the mid-century. The community was primarily made up of Baghdadi Jews who had refined their mercantile skills in Baghdad, for centuries an important trade center. It also included Sephardic Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1391, and ethnically Indian Jews, the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews. In 1839, a confluence of factors including persecution under the Ottoman ruler Daud Pasha saw some Jews fleeing the Ottoman Empire for safety in South and Southeast Asia. While they may have stood out in the Ottoman Empire, Jews were but one of a great many religious and ethnic groups in British India, and this invisibility afforded them opportunities to develop strong social and economic ties throughout the region without pressure to conform to others’ norms. Myanmar’s Jews were not only successful businessmen, but worked in the civil service and military police, and serviced ships docked in the Rangoon harbor. Despite elite Jews’ commercial success and their enculturation into a British worldview through the English mission schools (and subsequent weakening of their Baghdadi identity), the British never regarded them as peers.

WWII and the end of the colonial era effectively terminated Jewish social life in Myanmar. Most foreigners, Jews included, fled en masse to Calcutta in 1941 and 1942, many trekking across the brutal Indo-Burmese border. Roughly 1,500 Jews reached Calcutta from Myanmar, and were cared for by Baghdadi Jews there. Once recovered, the Burmese Jews found employment with the British or American military. A small group of Jews remained behind in Myanmar, many of whom had intermarried with Burmese who were barred from fleeing on European ships. They were regarded with suspicion by the Burmese nationalists, who associated them with the British. Around three to four hundred Jews returned to Myanmar after the war; despite the destruction of Rangoon, the Musmeah Yeshua had been unharmed. Several factors led to the subsequent disappearance of the Burmese Jewish community: their loss of British citizenship following independence, the deterioration of communal religious life, the breakdown of trade networks and nationalization of many privately owned businesses, erosion of educational institutions, and general chaos prompted many of Burma’s Jews to migrate.

Burma and Israel developed markedly friendly relations; both declared independence in 1948, Burma recognized Israeli statehood in 1949, and both David Ben-Gurion and Prime Minister U Nu shared a belief in socialism. U Nu was the first foreign leader to visit the State of Israel in 1955, and Ben-Gurion spent two weeks in Burma in 1961, during which time he studied Buddhism and was warmly welcomed by Burma’s small Jewish community. This period of friendship ended with the 1962 military coup, which imposed a policy of international isolationism. General Ne Win oversaw the nationalization of stores that had provided funding for the Musmeah Yeshua, which was attacked by an anti-Zionist mob in 1967. Burma’s last rabbi left in 1969, and the remaining Jewish community was reduced to a few dozen Sephardic and Bene Israel families. The Musmeah Yeshua synagogue remains open and is cared for today by Baghdadi Burmese father and son, Moses and Sammy Samuels.


Ruth Fredman Cernea, Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007).

Ben Frank “Jews in Burma: We Are Still Here!” The Jewish News, January 13, 2012, accessing July 11, 2013.