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Preserving Burma’s Last Synagogue

Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

Religious intolerance is spreading across the Middle East and many places in Asia as populist and radicalized clergy urge their followers to make life intolerable for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist minorities. Traveling over the years in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, I have heard older generations describe the cosmopolitan atmosphere of their youth, playing with friends of different religions. One former associate remembers how he was taught the Lord’s Prayer in Peshawar, Pakistan, by a Muslim babysitter because she figured since he was Catholic and it was bedtime, he should learn to pray as Catholics do. That she would know Catholic prayer was simply the result of growing up in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment that is now a faded memory.

The story out of Rangoon seems a good idea not only for Burma but for other countries as well. To allow the tolerance and diversity of past generations to be forgotten simply confirms the victory of radicals, populists, and forces of intolerance. Three cheers for Thant Myint-U and the Yangon Heritage Trust, which provide a model that should be replicated.



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