Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and U Nu developed a close personal friendship. U Nu purportedly taught Ben-Gurion to stand on his head; in 1961, the 75-year-old Ben-Gurion, who had once ridiculed U Nu—“the man knows nothing about Buddhism”—spent several days meditating and studying the religion with U Nu, then a devout Buddhist monk. Time reported that the Israeli legend “wowed his hosts by showing up attired like a potbellied pixy in Burma’s traditional gaungbaung headgear and silk sarong.” Other Israeli politicians, too, befriended their Burmese counterparts. In Shimon Peres’ 1995 book, Battling for Peace: A Memoir, he recalls being rowed around Mandalay in a small boat with then IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan and their host, soon-to-be Burmese dictator General Ne Win. “He said the only country he believed in was Israel,” wrote Peres.
On Friday evening, the day after the banquet, I meet Ambassador Mayer at the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, a beautiful, open-air building with blue and white pillars and green stained glass windows. Although its roof was torn off by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, it now looks as good as new. Donations for its repair and preservation came from the US-ASEAN Business Council—which has secured an exemption for the project from U.S. sanctions against Myanmar—as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and some individual donors. Like the mosques that dot the surrounding neighborhood, the synagogue’s cool interior makes it a blissful respite from Yangon’s oppressive heat. On this night, a cheerful Moses Samuels shuffles outside to greet us. Burmese men are masterful shufflers, and Moses, an older, bespectacled version of his son, shuffles with the best of them. The ambassador lights the Shabbat candles, and we join him in reciting the blessings in Hebrew, while Moses, whose grandfather was among the community members who provided donations for the synagogue’s construction, and two beleaguered-looking Jewish businessmen visiting from Singapore bow their heads in silence. Then, after we bid Moses and the businessmen goodnight, Mayer’s chauffeur whisks us away to an upscale Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Yangon, near the Generals’ residences.
Yaron Mayer grew up on Ein HaShofet (“Spring of the Judge” in Hebrew), a kibbutz near Haifa that is named for Louis Brandeis. “It was the first American kibbutz,” he explains, pausing to order Myanmar beer. I ask him about early diplomatic relations. “Burma was an important country then and also an important part of the nonaligned movement,” Mayer says. “Israel wanted good relations with Asia, and we thought they could help us be accepted.”
As we pass around dishes of duck and mutton over rice and vegetables, Mayer laments the ascent of Ne Win, who seized power in a 1962 military coup d’etat to become chairman of the Revolutionary Council and prime minister and proceeded to implement his Burmese way to socialism. “Ne Win sort of cut ties with the outside world,” says Mayer. “He nationalized property, including Jewish property and Israeli firms. Some say he didn’t want to be too close to Israel. Still, he kept the embassy.”
Ne Win succeeded in running the economy into the ground and by the 1970s, the officially Buddhist country was almost entirely isolated from the world. In 1988, shortly after the Burmese regime brutally suppressed a popular, democratic uprising, an internal coup ensued. The new and less politically ideological military junta—the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—took charge and has survived in part through limited exports of natural gas, timber and other resources. It is the SPDC that prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from taking power and keeps her under house arrest.