Life was far from problem-free. Wealthy Baghdadis seeking upward social mobility were frustrated by the British who barred them, and the Burmese, from social clubs. But the Baghdadis also replicated the British system of discrimination by treating the Bene Israel, their poorer brethren from India, with disdain. “The Baghdadis,” writes Cernea, “measured themselves against the British at one pole and against ‘lower class/caste’ Jews at the other. To be identified with these less sophisticated populations seemed to threaten their acceptance as British.” Intermarriage was frowned upon, and Baghdadi brides were often imported from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In 1913, the Baghdadi Jews even forbade Bene Israel from having aliyot in the synagogue and from serving on its board of trustees. The Bene Israel took the matter all the way to Rangoon’s High Court, where, in 1935, according to Cernea, a British justice declared that the “defendants are not entitled to exclude from the lists…a Jew merely because he is a Bene Israel.”
Internal social tensions were overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II. Most of the approximately 2,500 Jews living in Burma fled after the Japanese began bombing Rangoon on December 24, 1941. Among them was Stuart Spencer’s mother, who never returned, and Sally Joseph’s father, Abraham Ezra Joseph, who trekked alongside hundreds of thousands of other Burmese refugees through the mountains and across the Indian border to Calcutta.
Abraham was one of 500 or so Jews to return to Burma once the war ended. He married Florence, and Sally was born on July 18, 1948, shortly after Burma—and Israel—achieved independence from the British. Abraham passed away unexpectedly in 1957 at the age of 46, before a short-lived but ominous coup made it clear that Baghdadi Jews who chose to keep their British citizenship were not welcome. “Things really started to change in 1959 when it became more socialist,” says Joseph. The exodus began. “I always asked my mom why she wouldn’t go back to Rangoon,” says Spencer, “and she would say ‘there’s nothing to go back to.’ Everything was expropriated, her property was all stolen.”
While the Burmese Jewish immigrants began new lives in the United States and Britain, a friendship bloomed between Israel and Burma, both young, socialist and, in an increasingly polarized world, nonaligned.
Standing over six feet, Ambassador Yaron Mayer, a veteran of the Israeli foreign service, is one of the tallest men in Burma. Mayer’s short speech at the banquet is heavy on diplomatic cliches such as “friendly relations” and “potential for cooperation.” Embassy staff had set up a photo exhibit around the Grand Ballroom’s perimeter depicting the early history of Israeli-Burmese relations—“in honor of their 55th anniversary,” Mayer tells me. There was a photograph of throngs of Israelis greeting Burmese Prime Minister U Nu as he arrived in Tel Aviv in 1955—against the wishes of Arab leaders—to jump start agricultural cooperation between the two arid nations, the first visit to Israel by a foreign head of state. But there was no mention that Burma had voted “no” on Israeli membership at the UN in 1949, a moot point because in December of that year, Burma became one of the first nations to recognize Israel’s independence. The Israeli embassy in Burma, established in 1957, was a boon for the remaining Jews, offering them protection and an avenue to emigration.