Jewish Diaspora in Southeast Asia

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Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma
by Ruth Fredman Cernea
Published by Lexington Books, 2006

almost englishman

Before the Second World War, two golden ‘promised lands’ beckoned the thousands of Baghdadi Jews who lived in Southeast Asia: the British Empire, on which ‘the sun never set,’ and the promised land of their religious tradition, Jerusalem. Almost Englishmen studies the less well-known of these destinations. The book combines history and cultural studies to look into a significant yet relatively unknown period, analyzing to full effect the way Anglo culture transformed the immigrant Bagdhadi Jews. England’s influence was pervasive and persuasive: like other minorities in the complex society that was British India, the Baghdadis gradually refashioned their ideology and aspirations on the British model. The Jewish experience in the lush land of Burma, with its lifestyles, its educational system, and its internal tensions, is emblematic of the experience of the extended Baghdadi community, whether in Bombay, Calcutta, Shanghai, Singapore, or other ports and towns throughout Southeast Asia. It also suggests the experience of the Anglo-Indian and similar ‘European’ populations that shared their streets as well as the classrooms of the missionary societies’ schools. This contented life amidst golden pagodas ended abruptly with the Japanese invasion of Burma and a horrific trek to safety in India and could not be restored after the war. Employing first-person testimonies and recovered documents, this study illuminates this little known period in imperial and Jewish histories.

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escape to manilaEscape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror
by Frank Ephraim
Published by University of Illinois Press, 2008

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s more than a thousand European Jews sought refuge in the Philippines, joining the small Jewish population of Manila. When the Japanese invaded the islands in 1941, the peaceful existence of the barely settled Jews filled with the kinds of uncertainties and oppression they thought they had left behind. Escape to Manila gathers the testimonies of thirty-six refugees, who describe the difficult journey to Manila, the lives they built there, and the events surrounding the Japanese invasion. Combining these accounts with historical and archival records, Manila newspapers, and U.S. government documents, Frank Ephraim constructs a detailed account of this little-known chapter of world history.

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Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe
by Daniel Chirot and Anthony Reid
Published by University of Washington Press, 1997

essential outsiders

Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, like Jews in Central Europe until the Holocaust, have been remarkably successful as an entrepreneurial and professional minority. Whole regimes have sometimes relied on the financial underpinnings of Chinese business to maintain themselves in power, and recently Chinese businesses have led the drive to economic modernization in Southeast Asia. But at the same time, they remain, as the Jews were, the quintessential “outsiders.” In some Southeast Asian countries they are targets of majority nationalist prejudices and suffer from discrimination, even when they are formally integrated into the nation.

The essays in this book explore the reasons why the Jews in Central Europe and the Chinese in Southeast Asia have been both successful and stigmatized. Their careful scholarship and measured tone contribute to a balanced view of the subject and introduce a historical depth and comparative perspective that have generally been lacking in past discussions. Those who want to understand contemporary Southeast Asian and the legacy of the Jewish experience in Central Europe will gain new insights from the book.

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The Jews of Singapore
by Joan Bieder and Aileen T. Lau
Published by Suntree Media, 2007

Many would be surprised to learn that Singapore has been home to a thriving Jewish community for almost 170 years – and even more surprised to hear that the community traces its roots to Baghdad, Iraq. What brought this group of Jewish pioneers from Baghdad to an island in the Southeast Asia? How did a group of Judeo-Arabic speaking immigrants in long exotic robes get along with their Malayan, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian neighbours? How did they survive World War II as prisoners in Japanese internment camps, even forming a camp “university” for a time, and why was it that, when the survivors emerged ragged and starved from the camps, a former Jewish prisoner led the country to independence from British rule? What forces brought Singapore’s Jewish community to near-extinction in the 1980s, and how were they led to rebirth and renewal in the new century that promises the community success and well-being in the years to come?

jews of singapore

To give a full picture of the community, the author weaves together information from interviews, oral histories, memoirs, personal letters, family documents, photographs, correspondence and government records from Singapore, Israeli, Dutch and British archives, and traces the histories of the community’s larger-than-life leaders and their fam- ilies. Told through an introduction and 18 chapters, the author reveals how Jewish community members in Singapore suffered, survived and prospered to the present times. The book, with 450 illustrations and maps, and peppered with numerous box stories, highlights the contributions that Jewish leaders have made to Singaporean finance, business, medicine and law, while living in a Republic that provides respect, religious freedom, equal opportunity and full integration into society.

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Jews in Thailand
by Ruth Gerson and Stephen Mallinger
Published by River Books Press, 2011

jews in thailand

This book traces the history of the Jews in Thailand from their first arrival in Ayutthaya in the early 17th century, most likely for the purpose of trade, up until the present day. Not as prominent as some of the other foreigners who frequented this magnificent city, in time they still left their mark on Thailand in subtle ways. Some of the Jews who arrived in Siam two centuries later had colourful occupations such as wigmakers, gunsmiths, a creator of stage backdrops for the theatre, and innkeepers. More conventional professions included merchants, lawyers, doctors and gem dealers, a trade for which they have become known in Thailand today. Several of the Jewish residents were “ground breakers” in that they helped to establish such significant institutions as the Thai stock market.

The Jews that came to Thailand were not an homogenous group; they represented two ethnic groups – one originating in Europe (Ashkenazie) the other in the Middle East (Sephardi). These differences aside, they established a Jewish community in Thailand that continues to thrive to the present day, and although small in number they managed to maintain their customs and religion, exemplifying the Jewish Diaspora.

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