AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 605

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Session 605: Migrant Experiences: Jewish Communities in and from South and Southeast Asia

Organizer and Chair: Joan G. Roland, Pace University, USA

Discussant: James R. Ross, Northeastern University, USA

South and Southeast Asia have attracted Jewish migrants throughout the centuries; vibrant, if small, communities have made their homes there. Sephardic Jews, as well as Jews from Iran and Mesopotamia/Iraq, integrated (or did not) with long established Jewish communities of uncertain origin in India and Afghanistan. Extending their trade activities to Southeast and East Asia they took up residence and interacted with Ashkenazi Jews who continued to arrive in these areas. The onset of World War Two created new challenges for Jews in this region. After the war, many Jews departed from these countries, often to Israel and the United States. This panel explores the historical context of these Jewish migrations as well as the cultural and religious dimensions, activities, and identities of various migrant populations. Junior and senior scholars of diverse ethnic backgrounds contribute scholarly perspectives from critical fields of Asian, Jewish, and global history. Meyer examines the alignment of Baghdadi Jews to the dominant British in Southeast Asia. Goldstein elucidates the historical context, starting with Conversos, for the formation of a secular Philippino-Jewish identity. Yap investigates the experiences of Jews during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore. Aharon analyzes the complex history and composition of the Afghan Jewish community. Finally, Roland addresses the transformation of identity of Indian Jews in the United States. In exploring these migrant experiences (and especially within the generally tolerant climate of these host countries), this panel sheds compelling new light on the broader experiences of minorities in South and Southeast Asia.

Baghdadi Jewish Communities in Southeast Asia: How far did they stray from their Babylonian traditional and Cultural Roots?
Maisie J. Meyer, Independent Scholar, United Kingdom

This paper examines the reasons why Baghdadi Jews were deservedly proud of their rich Babylonian heritage, even though under Muslim rule since 636 CE, with the inferior status of dhimmis, protected persons. In the early 20th century Baghdadis, who numbered about forty- five thousand, were the second largest and most prosperous Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire. What motivated them to emigrate and settle in Southeast Asia from the 1830s on? Their initial propensity to live in very close proximity in what they call the mahalla, virtually created a “Little Baghdad” wherever they settled. This facilitated close adherence to their Babylonian roots. As was customary in Baghdad, wealthy, paternalistic philanthropists set up the infrastructure crucial to preserving their identity and ethnicity. They maintained close commercial ties with their kinsmen in other eastern trading posts and developed the Asiatic trade internationally. The mutual interdependence between these communities, not unlike that of an extended family, in an era when communication was difficult, is exceptional. This paper will emphasize the gradual erosion of Baghdadi customs among the wealthy on the altar of their pragmatic alignment to the dominant British, and their slavish Anglicization. This affected some rituals associated with their rights of passage, their communal institutions, their seeking guidance from rabbinical authorities in Baghdad, their leisure pursuits, their use of amulets for protection against evil spirits and the evil eye, and not least in the status of Baghdadi women. The Baghdadi accommodation to their Southeast Asia context represents a significant phenomenon.

“A Total Loss to Judaism”?: The Jews of Manila, 1898-2011
Jonathan Goldstein, University of West Georgia, USA

For much of its existence, the Jewish community of Manila, which has never exceeded 2,500 individuals, has been ethnically diverse, assimilated, and overwhelmingly intermarried. The original settlers in the 1500s were Marranos, or Spanish Jews who nominally converted to Roman Catholicism but who nevertheless practiced Judaism in secret. Several Marranos were caught and tried by the Inquisition. Subsequent arrivals were Alsatian Jews in the l870s, discharged American servicemen after the Spanish- American and First World Wars, Russian Jews fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution of l917, and a potpourri of Turkish and Syrian Jewish refugees. In the words of a journalist who visited in the l930’s, this multi-ethnic community was overwhelmingly non-observant and “a total loss to Judaism.” Nevertheless, the rise of Hitler motivated many of Manila’s most assimilated Jews into a new form of secular Jewish identity. These dedicated individuals rescued approximately 1,500 Jews from Hitler and subsequently urged the Philippine government to grant substantial assistance to the reborn State of Israel. This aid took the form of diplomatic recognition and substantial economic relations. To many Philippine Jews, these two forms of Philanthropy were inseparable. This paper will examine the historical context for the formation of secular Philippino-Jewish identity.

Baghdadi Jewish Communities in Colonial Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore during the Second World War
Felicia Yap, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

This paper sheds new light on the compelling wartime experiences of Baghdadi Jewish communities during the Japanese occupation of East and Southeast Asia (Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong). Before the war, these communities were often fractured by critical class distinctions, and especially between wealthier Baghdadis who strove towards an imagined British identity and poorer Baghdadis who retained their Judeo-Arabic connections. However, the insularity of British expatriate communities and rigid social barriers which persisted in colonial environments often prevented the full inclusion (or acceptance) of Anglicized Baghdadis within British circles. This paper also argues that the Second World War was a critical turning point in the history of these communities, especially in terms of challenging their identities and loyalties, and was a key factor in precipitating their general exodus from these colonial territories. By 1945, the Japanese had incarcerated most Baghdadi Jews in these territories in several civilian internment camps in the region (such as Stanley in Hong Kong and Changi in Singapore). Within the camps, various factors such as latent anti-Semitism which had simmered before the war were magnified by the pressures of prolonged incarceration. After the war, many Baghdadi families began new lives elsewhere, leading to a steady decline in population numbers. In opening up these new dimensions to the experiences of Baghdadi Jews in colonial British Asia, this paper will contribute to a more detailed historical understanding of these forgotten communities both before and during the Second World War.

The Jews of Afghanistan: Relations with Muslims and Reasons for Emigration
Sara Y. Aharon, New York University, USA

This lecture examines the little-studied Jewish population of Afghanistan from its professed connection to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, through the community's development and emigration in the 20th century. About 6,000 Jews, concentrated in Herat and Kabul, lived in Afghanistan during that time. Special attention will be paid to changing Muslim-Jewish relations in Afghanistan until Jewish emigration peaked in the 1960s. Historically, both Afghanistan’s government and Muslim populace, the majority of which were Sunni Pashtuns, had a tolerant viewpoint towards the Jews. This openness came partially from the Pashtuns’ belief that they, as well as the Jews, came from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Travelers to Afghanistan in the 19th century highlight their astonishment at the warmth of the Pashtuns towards their “Jewish brothers,” who were even preferred over the hated Shiites in Iran. The Jews, as a tiny minority, were much more wary about social mingling with Muslims. But the latter’s acceptance of the Jews allowed for a relatively peaceful life in Afghanistan, where Jews thrived in mercantile trade. However, Afghan nationalism after the end of the third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 ignited a surge of resentment against the populations most involved in the Afghan economy, namely the Hindus and the Jews, who were not bound by Islamic restrictions against interest and usury. This bitterness seems to have been exacerbated by the arrival of hundreds of Nazis in Afghanistan, who signed treaties with the Third Reich in the 1930s. This lecture will further discuss that, even with the Nazi presence, Afghanistan’s release of a series of anti-Jewish decrees was primarily motivated by the rise of Afghan nationalism, rather than German anti-Semitism. The hardships from anti-Jewish legislation, and especially the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, compelled a mass exodus of Afghan Jews to emigrate from their native land.

: Negotiating Identity: Being Indian and Jewish in America
Joan G. Roland, Pace University, USA

In the last sixty years Jews from India have immigrated to the United States, most of them directly from India and some via Israel. As an ethnic and religious minority, for the most part fluent in English upon arrival, Indian Jews have faced a complex set of challenges: both to become American and to be accepted as Jews by the predominantly Ashkenazi American Jewish community. This paper focuses on the Bene Israel, the largest of the three Indian Jewish communities. Issues of socio-cultural identity, educational and economic status, religious observances, creation of Indian Jewish organizations, and degree of acculturation or assimilation are explored. To what extent do different generations feel a connectedness to India? How have they retained, or transformed, Indian and/or Indian Jewish identity? How has this been affected by their strategy of adaptation to align themselves with Jews in America? Religion is a powerful force and marker for immigrants in the construction and preservation of group identity, perhaps more for the Bene Israel than for many other Indians. Should this community be considered part of the Indian and/or of the Jewish diaspora? What is the primary identity of the second generation: Indian? American? Jewish? Some combination therefore? Based on questionnaires, interviews and written sources, this paper argues that most Bene Israel in the U.S. have negotiated a transcendence of Jewish over Indian ethnicity, reflected especially in the marriage patterns of young immigrants who arrived single and of the second generation.