Yom Kippur in Bangkok


I was the only American in the room and definitely the most clueless. 

Standing at the back of the makeshift shul for Yom Kippur services in Chabad of Bangkok last year, I attempted to follow along in my all-Hebrew siddur pamphlet while observing other people in the room and trying to peep through the mechitzah just to try to figure out what was going on. 

Although well aware that taking a break from UC Santa Barbara to spend a semester abroad in Thailand meant that my Jewish identity would take a momentary backseat, I had cringed with good old-fashioned Jewish guilt at the thought of entirely snubbing Yom Kippur. No matter how far from home I was, it just didn’t feel right. 

So, having decided to fast and skip class, I set out unaccompanied to observe the Day of Atonement at the local Chabad, despite the hot, humid air that was so wet you could drink it. I took the sticky, sweaty, 20-minute walk up to Khao San Road for, well, I didn’t really know what for. I showed up 45 minutes late and — after a friendly reprimand by the Israeli security guards for my tardiness — found my way upstairs. 

The Chabad of Bangkok’s location is pretty ridiculous, like many things in Thailand. It sits smack in the middle of Khao San Road, which is the beating heart of Bangkok backpackers. Don’t visit if you’re claustrophobic; the streets are buzzing with motorbikes, heavily drinking travelers, people offering you scorpion-on-a-stick snacks, and street vendors selling everything from papaya shakes to pork balls. Just down the street is a restaurant called Shoshana where Thai waitresses who speak much better Hebrew than I do dish up hot pita and shawarma. 

The word “Chabad” itself appears on a two-story building squeezed between a restaurant with a massive aqua-blue Buddha in the back and a 7-Eleven, which in Thailand is more like the lovechild of CVS and Target. The Jewish outpost welcomes you with an intimidating guard post in front and a more inviting kosher Israeli restaurant on the bottom serving overpriced schnitzel and hummus. From what I perceived, the place attracts everyone from wandering Jews and ex-pat Israelis to international students who come for Wi-Fi and a quick breather from fiery Thai food. 

On that hot Yom Kippur day, I was greeted in Hebrew, to which I responded clumsily in my less-than-proficient Hebrew. I couldn’t find — or didn’t know — the right words. Yes, I was American, I admitted, somewhat pathetically. Yes, an American Jew. Yes, studying in Bangkok. 

And with that, I entered a small, simple space with folding chairs and temporary walls delineating a prayer area from the larger hall. Expecting to see some Chabadniks and maybe a few Israelis, I was astonished to find a place overflowing with Jews. There were a good 50-plus adults and small children in a makeshift Chabad synagogue in Bangkok on Yom Kippur! 

They were people like me, and yet not like me. To my left was a Russian high-schooler participating in an exchange program and living with a host family in a small village in Northern Thailand. On my other side was a beautiful, dreadlocked Israeli woman dressed in all hemp who had spent the past two years volunteering in and traveling through India. There were 20 Chabad kids running around, too — far less intimidating partners for practicing my Hebrew in preparation for an upcoming semester studying in Jerusalem. 

Although I lack experience with Chabad-style Judaism (I grew up attending a Conservative shul) and had nothing but my religion in common with anyone else present, the whole event felt unexpectedly natural. It wasn’t necessarily the service itself; it was the beauty of spending a Yom Kippur with strangers from around the world — surrounded by, of all things, the absurdities and wonders of Thai culture on Khao San Road. 

The diversity made me feel part of a larger peoplehood and expanded the sense of Judaism that I grew up with, which extended only from America to Israel. Realizing that I could probably find a Yom Kippur service no matter where I might be in the world made me feel a really beautiful sense of Jewish wholeness.

And just like that, my time in Thailand — something I thought would be a break from anything remotely Jewish — turned into a fresh peek into Jewish life abroad and an unanticipated puncture of my own small bubble of Judaism. Though Hillel at UC Santa Barbara Yom Kippur services are terrific, this alternative experience renewed my sense of belonging to a culture and peoplehood that extends across all seas — and relieved some Jewish guilt in the process. 

Ari Plachta is a senior at UC Santa Barbara from Woodland Hills.

Bomb in Thai capital kills 16, wounds 81 in bid ‘to destroy economy’


A bomb planted at one of the Thai capital's most renowned shrines on Monday killed 16 people, including three foreign tourists, and wounded scores in an attack the government called a bid to destroy the economy.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast at the Erawan shrine at a major city-center intersection. Thai forces are fighting a low-level Muslim insurgency in the predominantly Buddhist country's south, but those rebels have rarely launched attacks outside their heartland.

“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters.

Several media outlets had earlier reported that 27 people were killed but national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang told reporters the death toll was 16 in an attack he said was unprecedented in Thailand.

“It was a pipe bomb,” Somyot said. “It was placed inside the Erawan shrine.”

The shrine, on a busy corner near top hotels, shopping centers, offices and a hospital, is a major attraction, especially for visitors from East Asia, including China. Many ordinary Thais also worship there.

The government would set up a “war room” to coordinate the response to the blast, the Nation television channel quoted Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as saying.

Two people from China and one from the Philippines were among the dead, a tourist police officer said. A rescue agency said 81 people were wounded and media said most of them were from China and Taiwan.

“It was like a meat market,” said Marko Cunningham, a New Zealand paramedic working with a Bangkok ambulance service, who said the blast had left a two-meter-wide (6-foot-) crater.

“There were bodies everywhere. Some were shredded. There were legs where heads were supposed to be. It was horrific,” Cunningham said, adding that people several hundred meters away had been injured.

POLITICAL TENSION

At the scene lay burned out motorcycles, with rubble from the shrine's wall and pools of blood on the street.

Earlier, authorities had ordered onlookers back, saying they were checking for a second bomb but police later said no other explosive devices were found.

Authorities stepped up security checks at some major city intersections and in tourist areas. The city's elevated railway, which passes over the scene, was operating normally.

While initial suspicion might fall on Muslim separatists in the south, Thailand has been riven for a decade by an intense and sometimes violent struggle for power between political factions in Bangkok.

Occasional small blasts have been blamed on one side or the other. Two pipe bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in the same area in February, but caused little damage.

Police said that attack was aimed at raising tension when the city was under martial law.

The army has ruled Thailand since May 2014, when it ousted an elected government after months of at times violent anti-government protests.

The shrine intersection was the site of months of anti-government protests in 2010 by supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Dozens were killed in a military crackdown and a shopping center was set ablaze.

Are Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims the world’s ‘least wanted’ people?


Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim activist who lives in Myanmar, says his people face a simple calculus when deciding whether to remain in their western Myanmar homes or escape via the Andaman Sea on overcrowded, hopelessly equipped fishing boats:

“Do — or die.”

Rohingya Muslims number around 1 million in a majority-Buddhist country of more than 53 million. Tahay is the leader of Myanmar’s Union Nationals Development Party — an all-Muslim party prohibited from running candidates in elections. Speaking on May 30 by telephone from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Tahay offered up a grim checklist of what life is like for the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (pronounced ro-heej-ah):

No economic rights. No citizenship. Overt state persecution. Violence by Buddhist extremists that’s sanctioned and sometimes assisted by the government. Horrifying levels of poverty, starvation, lack of medical care and more. 

“They know they might sink and die” in the sea, Tahay said. “They know the danger. But circumstances forced them to leave.”

The plight of the Rohingyas — a small Muslim sect that lives primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in neighboring Bangladesh — has suddenly become international news in recent weeks after The New York Times, in particular, ” target=”_blank”>denied entry into Cuba and Florida and forced to return to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took in all the St. Louis’ passengers, 532 of them came under German occupation during the war, and 254 were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, Hudson said, Western European countries are unwilling to allow the Rohingya crisis to impact the growth in business that European businesses have seen thanks to greater access to Myanmar’s economy after the end of the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2013. 

Hudson traveled to Myanmar in March and there, he said, he saw Rolex stores, new casinos and hotels, and Mercedes and Porsche dealerships — direct results of the end of the EU sanctions. “All the trappings of new money are just flooding in, and that’s really difficult to turn off,” Hudson said.

And although the Obama administration continues to raise the issue of the Rohingyas' persecution in meetings with Burmese officials, a senior State Department official told the Journal that the Rohingya issue is just one of several items on Washington’s agenda as it watches Myanmar’s slow transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 

Sowing hatred’s seeds

The story of the animosity toward Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly toward the Rohingyas, from the central government and the nation’s Buddhists, particularly by the Rakhine Buddhists, goes back centuries and, in modern history, has certain notable flash points. 

But it’s a history that started in relative harmony.

The Rohingyas were first recognized in Myanmar by the Buddhist government of U Nu, the country’s first leader after Burma gained independence in 1948. Some Rohingyas even served in Nu’s administration and, to win the support of potential Rohingya voters, some government officials granted instant citizenship to Rohingyas who entered the country from Bangladesh.

The past three decades, however, have seen a quick dissolution of Buddhist-Muslim relations, which had already been disintegrating for decades because of Buddhist fears of Muslim domination. Myanmar’s central government has used those fears to strengthen its own power, and a handful of attacks by violent Muslim and Rohingya separatists have reinforced the notion that Rohingyas are not to be trusted.

Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped most Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship and left them with few, if any, legal rights under either Burmese or international law. It also gave credence to xenophobic rhetoric from the government and Buddhist monks, including claims that the Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese at all, but economic migrants who crossed illegally into Myanmar from Bangladesh with the intent of creating a separatist radical Muslim state. It was an overblown claim, but nevertheless contained some kernels of truth.

Pre-genocide?

Gregory Stanton is a professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia and the founder and president of the group Genocide Watch.  In 1996, he created what has become the defining list of the eight stages of genocide (now expanded to 10): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.

Using these standards, the racist elements within Rakhine Buddhist society and the flame-fanners within the Burmese government have pushed the Rohingyas into the eighth stage (persecution) and on the doorstep of extermination, Hudson said.

“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists, and they are the enemy, and we have to get the enemy before they get us,” Hudson said. “It’s a common narrative in pre-genocidal societies and it’s a common narrative for regimes that are facing an existential threat on their hold on power.” 

That potential threat to the government’s rule isn’t existential, but political, and it stems in part from its recent introduction of greater political and social freedoms — pushed hard by internal democratic parties and by Western governments — and the upcoming democratic elections in the fall. 

In March, Hudson traveled for 10 days to Myanmar and Thailand, along with staff from the USHMM’s Simon-Skjodt Center, on a fact-finding mission — an attempt to witness firsthand the human rights crisis that they’d previously only heard about through anecdotes and news reports.

They visited Rakhine state, spent four days in Rohingya internment camps and ghettoized villages, and traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The group chronicled its trip in a disturbing report available online, ” target=”_blank”>description of Aung Mingalar read like that of a sort of post-apocalyptic village — buildings falling apart; shops closed; and doors, windows and signs either crookedly hanging by their hinges or missing entirely.

Hudson described “row upon row of barracks” in Aung Mingalar, which reminded him of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. “The camps are so large and spread out along this road that runs out into the jungle,” Hudson said, “it’s just eerily reminiscent of a tropical sort of Auschwitz in some ways.”

Food and medicine in Aung Mingalar are scarce, and without sufficient electricity or farmland or basic government services, earning money to live on is all but impossible. To survive, Rohingya residents depend on the generosity of aid groups and the occasional shopping trip to markets outside the ghetto — trips that can require cash to bribe the government guards at Aung Mingalar’s entrance and to pay for a security escort through the potentially hostile surrounding Rakhine Buddhist area of Sittwe.

The destitution and poverty that engulfs Aung Mingalar and its approximately 4,000 Muslims are the norm, not the exception, for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, even in towns that are not as obviously ghettoized and sealed as Aung Mingalar.

Nora Murphy, a physician in Chicago who has traveled several times to Rakhine state on aid missions, described life in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim town 60 miles northwest of Sittwe, as well as other Rohingya towns in Rakhine state:

“The markets were devoid of vegetables and fruit. The poverty was so blatant,” Murphy said via telephone from Chicago. Given the region’s tropical climate, she said the Rohingyas ought to be in a position to have strong agricultural production and the resulting nutritional and health benefits that would follow. 

“During the hot season, kids were always running around having colds, for an area where their nutrition should be good,” Murphy said. She spoke on the condition that the dates of her trips and her sponsoring aid group would not be published, out of fear that the Burmese government would restrict their future ability to deliver aid, as it has done in the past to humanitarian organizations.

Like Aung Mingalar, most Rohingya villages cannot economically sustain themselves. The government’s restrictions on the Rohingyas' freedom to travel outside their towns, and its denial of basic services, along with the surrounding Buddhist population’s hostility, force the handful of Rohingyas who have been permitted limited travel to navigate the government’s complex and arbitrary checkpoint system.

“Even if you paid money, you waited, and when you got the permission to go out, there were checkpoints, and only the Rohingyas were searched,” Murphy said. 

The lack of basic medication and health care for many Rohingyas is so severe, Murphy said, that once she even had to give emergency medical advice via Facebook chat from Chicago to a Rohingya Muslim who had managed to find an Internet connection and needed immediate advice on how to stem extreme bleeding in a pregnant Rohingya woman who had just had a miscarriage.

“People who have their rights respected and enjoy basic freedoms don’t usually feel desperate enough to flee in such dangerous circumstances,” said David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma. “All of the root causes of this problem start in Burma and Bangladesh, and that’s where long-term solutions should be found,” Mathieson said.

More than 25,000 people, most of them Rohingyas, have taken to the Andaman Sea since January, and thousands are thought to still be stranded aboard fishing boats, many abandoned by smugglers who charged hundreds of dollars — a fortune for the Rohingyas — for passage. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon told the Journal on May 29 that since May 24, U.S. Navy aircraft have conducted “regular maritime surveillance missions over the Andaman Sea, for the purpose of searching for vessels carrying Rohingya refugees.” That intelligence, the official said, is then shared with regional governments. She said the Pentagon has no official estimate for how many boats or people remain stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Meanwhile, even as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand recently agreed to offer temporary shelter to those Rohingya trafficking victims who make it ashore, decrepit refugee camps and graves filled with Rohingya refugees have been found in Thailand and Malaysia. A 2014 Reuters report revealed that some Thai officials had been complicit with smugglers in detaining and extorting Rohingya refugees, demanding more money from their families back home if they wished to survive.


“Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families.” — George Soros

In a prerecorded address broadcast at the Oslo Conference on Rohingyas in late May, billionaire investor, philanthropist and political activist George Soros said that when he visited Myanmar in January for the fourth time in as many years, he went to Aung Mingalar and recognized a ghetto similar to the one he lived in as a child in Budapest in 1944.

“In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood,” Soros said. “Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.”

Echoes of 1939 — on land and at sea

Ruth Mandel is the longtime director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She’s also a member of the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience, and, as an 8-month-old in May 1939, was likely the youngest passenger aboard the MS St. Louis trans-Atlantic ocean liner, which carried 937 passengers, nearly all Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Mandel was traveling with her mother and father, and the family ended up surviving the war in Great Britain.

The ship and its Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba on June 2 and soon thereafter from a port in Florida. On June 6, out of options, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, took the St. Louis back to Europe. About half of the passengers fell under Nazi occupation during the war, and about half of those were murdered by the Nazis.

Does anyone care?

In an email exchange, analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, made an obvious, yet ultimately unhopeful point, when asked which country — Malaysia, Thailand or the U.S. — should be leading the way in helping the Rohingyas.

His one-word response: “Myanmar.”

The diplomatic tragedy for the Rohingyas is they have never had a critical mass of sympathetic supporters within Burmese society — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, despite a plea the dalai lama made in an interview with The Australian, in which he said Suu Kyi should do more on the Rohingyas' behalf. 

And even as the Burmese government’s gradual movement toward democracy, which began in 2011, has prompted the United States to ease some of its economic sanctions and the European Union to restore full economic trade with Myanmar, Hudson believes the EU is squandering its opportunity to use its leverage to help the Rohingyas. 

“We met with European embassies and, frankly, they are so interested in the bonanza of investment in Myanmar right now that they aren’t doing anything to slow down the access of their companies to get into the Burmese market,” Hudson said. 

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh are focused on the immediate boat refugee crisis, but not on its cause. “They are not asking Myanmar to deal with the disease. They are simply trying to manage the refugee crisis,” Hudson said.

In 2011, Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to send a secretary of state to Myanmar, when Hillary Clinton traveled there. The next year, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, a sign of Washington’s pleasure at the Burmese government’s political reforms, which to date include greater media and economic freedoms, anti-corruption laws and elections. 

Hudson commended the Obama administration for continuing to discuss the Rohingya issue in private discussions with Burmese officials and in public speeches, but the USHMM’s report on its visit to Myanmar called on the U.S., EU and United Nations to use their economic leverage to make future agreements with the Burmese government dependent on its meeting humanitarian and civil rights benchmarks vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. “They’ve gotten a taste for it [foreign economic investment],” Hudson said. “They want more.” 

But beyond economics, for Mandel, who traveled on the St. Louis and went on to serve on the USHMM’s conscience committee, the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar is just the most recent example in a long history of powerless groups that can’t find help from those in power: “The human race doesn’t have a very positive history of arms wide open, reaching out to people who are not in their clan.”


Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine who is currently an Alfred Friendly Fellow at the Jewish Journal.  Jared Sichel is a staff writer for the Journal.

Surviving a childhood in refugee camps, and thriving


It was late at night when my family and I climbed into a boat to cross the Salween River into Thailand. We were trying to escape the civil war in our remote village in the Karen State in eastern Burma. Although I don’t remember the exact date, I know it was on a December night in 1990 that my family sought shelter in a refugee camp across the border.

I was 4 years old, and I can’t remember anything of the trip itself. But my parents often recalled the old days, reminding my brother, three sisters and me never to forget our roots. We are one of many ethnic minorities in Burma; ours is the ethnic Karen, or Kayin, which makes up approximately 7 percent of the population of 60 million in Burma, also known as Myanmar. It is estimated that 7 million Karen people still live in various parts of the country, including the Karen State.  

After Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, the Burmese government refused to grant independent states or equal rights to ethnic minorities, including the Karen. So, in 1949, ethnic Karen rebels began waging war against the Burmese government. During the decades-long civil war that followed, tens of thousands of Karen civilians were forced off their land and fled for their lives. 

In 1990, the Burmese army’s air strikes against the Karen rebels landed in my village. We had to hide in bunkers in the jungle. As the fighting continued, my family decided to leave our village and cross into Thailand. There are nine Burmese refugee camps on the Thai border, and since the 1990s, some 140,000 Karen have taken refuge in these camps. My family was among them.

 When I was 6 years old, I started going to school in a refugee camp. It was run by community leaders from within the camp. Students used slate to write on because paper was too costly; teachers used chalk on blackboards made of wood. The subjects we were taught included the English and Karen alphabets, mathematics and drawing. 

All of the buildings in the camp — shelter, schools, clinics, churches, monasteries and food stores — were made of bamboo, wood and leaves. They were more like huts. We walked to school and mostly traveled on foot in the camp. There was no electricity, Internet or phone lines.

Life in the camp was extremely difficult for our family. I had to use candlelight or light from locally handmade lamps fueled by diesel oil for reading and doing my homework. At times I had to finish my assignments before sunset because my family couldn’t afford candles or lamps. We sometimes used iodized salt to brush our teeth and wash our mouths, because we couldn’t afford toothpaste. We often took baths and showers without soap.

Like so many of the refugees, my parents had been farmers before they had to flee, and they had no income in the camps. They were solely dependent on humanitarian support for all the basics, including food, medicine, health care, materials for daily use and constructing shelter. These were all provided by global charity organizations and international governments, and facilitated by the humanitarian aid agency The Border Consortium.

Foods such as rice, beans, cooking oil, salt, fish paste, canned fish, chili and other supplies were distributed monthly to households in the camp for free. Bamboo, wood and leaves were delivered annually to households to construct and repair their shelters.  

Living in the refugee camps was like being a bird in a cage. We were officially barred by Thai authorities from traveling outside the camp to study or look for work; we were allowed to leave only for medical emergencies. Refugees were subject to arrest and extortion by Thai security guards and police if they were caught outside the camp. 

I grew up and spent almost 20 years in several refugee camps, completing the informal education that was available within the camps. But, like all students in the camps, I could not enroll in a university or any Thai or Burmese institution of higher education because they don’t accept the camp schools’ certificate of completion.

After finishing 10th grade, students can go to a community college inside the refugee camp. These are run by community leaders with the help of some foreign volunteers. Even though many of my classmates attended these schools, most of them still had to work in the camps (despite their education, they are not permitted to leave) in low-paying community projects run by nongovernmental organizations. At these projects, such as schools and clinics, local workers are paid lower wages than international staff at the same organizations. 

Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t go to a community college, because I didn’t see any hope for my future on that path. Instead, I tried to make friends with supportive elders, teachers and community leaders, hoping they could help me reach my goal of becoming an educated person and obtaining a well-paid job. 

I also avoided having a girlfriend when I was a teenager. Rules about dating were very strict, and sexual relations before marriage were forbidden by the religion and culture. Young couples who were suspected of having a sexual relationship were forced to get married by community leaders and their parents, even if it was against their will. In the refugee camps, once you got married, there was no hope for further education. Many of my friends under 18 ended up in early marriages due to joblessness and limited access to further education.

The mentors I found encouraged me to study English during the summer holidays. They also guided me to read books in addition to those in my school curriculum, so I read other nonfiction and fiction books for general knowledge. My parents also encouraged me to broaden my reading. 

After I finished 10th grade, I took the risk of traveling outside the camp for further educational opportunities. Being stateless and with no legal status, I risked being arrested or extorted by Thai police just by leaving the camp. Nevertheless, with the help of a few close teachers and friends, I applied for journalism training and other on-the-job study programs.

In 2004, I was selected to study journalism in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, in a course organized by Burmese media organization The Irrawaddy. Although I wasn’t able to get a job after the training, I applied and was accepted to another journalism program, in the same city, in 2005. After that one-year program, I had a six-month internship at and then became a staff reporter with the Network Media Group, a Burmese media organization also in Chiang Mai. In 2007, I was selected for an internship at The Irrawaddy, after which I was promoted to permanent staff reporter.  

The Irrawaddy is a leading independent Burmese media organization founded by exiled Burmese journalists in Thailand. It reaches millions of readers worldwide in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, China, and Southeast Asian and East Asian nations. More than 180,000 unique visitors from 200 countries access the website every month.

At The Irrawaddy, I was able to build my career, writing for domestic and international audiences. I won several journalism fellowships and internships and participated in workshops and seminars, many of which brought me to Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries.

In May 2010, I traveled to the southern Philippines to observe elections in Zamboanga City and Sulu, an autonomous Muslim region marred by religious tensions. In July of the same year, I was awarded a fellowship that took me to Jakarta to report on the democratic transition in Indonesia. In December 2010, I was selected to attend a “Human and Civil Rights” workshop in Germany organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German foundation for liberal politics.

In February and March 2014, I was awarded a journalism fellowship by the Honolulu-based East-West Center, an institution founded by the U.S. Congress, which allowed me to travel to Honolulu for a workshop, and to Indonesia and Burma for field studies, where I met government officials and respective stakeholders. In August of the same year, I was invited by the Swedish Institute, a Swedish government agency, for a media visit in Stockholm, where I learned about democracy, integration programs and multiethnic cultures.

I am currently in the U.S. on a six-month fellowship awarded by the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, a nonprofit foundation that supports journalists from developing countries through training and placement in U.S. newsrooms. Along with this year’s other fellows, I studied at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, in Columbia. I am currently working at my fellowship placement with the Jewish Journal.

At the Journal, I see that my refugee experience is, sadly, not unique. The year 1948, when Burma achieved independence from Britain, was the year Israel won independence from Britain as well. That year, the Palestinian refugee crisis began. More recently, the Middle East has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees created by the civil war in Syria. Thousands more refugees are risking death to flee through Libya, across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.  I hope what small insights I can offer from having been a refugee myself can help others facing similar challenges.

I have journeyed a long way since crossing the Salween into Thailand 25 years ago. If I hadn’t pushed myself to take risks, I would still be locked up in the refugee camp like my classmates and friends. When my family and I sought refuge on the Thai border, we thought the conflict would be short-lived and that we would return home shortly. However, this was a distant dream — the war has lasted for decades, and many of the refugees have spent their entire lives in the camps. As for my family, my parents and one sister are still in a camp, while two of my siblings reside in the United States. 

However, beginning in 2005, many refugees began entering countries other than Burma or Thailand — including the U.S. — through a resettlement program managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They left to start a new life, realizing there was no hope of returning to Burma, and that their future — and that of the following generations — in the camps is bleak. In Thailand, there is no hope for refugees to ever obtain citizenship, whereas in some of these other countries they have at least a chance of getting work and, eventually, citizenship. 

From 2005 to 2014, more than 80,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, resettled in various countries; about 70,000 of them are in the U.S. Others have settled in Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. 

Yet there are still approximately 120,000 refugees in camps in Thailand, all of whom continue to face uncertainty. Many countries have decreased or stopped recruiting refugees, believing that the ongoing peace process in Burma offers hope for the refugees’ return. Also, the Thai government has been accelerating repatriation since 2012, when the Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels signed a cease-fire agreement. 

But none of these parties can guarantee lasting peace or the safety and security of the refugees. Instead, the Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels continue to strengthen their military capabilities and entrench their forces while talking peace. Very few refugees have revisited their villages to see whether it is safe for them to return, and none have returned to Burma permanently. 

The Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels have failed to maintain a sustainable peace several times in the past, resulting in the breakdown of cease-fires that each time have forced thousands of refugees to be displaced. These refugees, like those who fled before them, now find themselves at a crossroads, as they can neither return home in safety nor resettle in many of the countries that had, for a brief time, been open to them.


Saw Yan Naing, 30, is an ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar who is currently on a prestigious fellowship with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, interning at the Jewish Journal. You can reach him at naing@presspartners.org.

Israeli girl, 12, dies in Thailand ferry fire


A 12-year-old girl from Israel was the lone fatality in a fire aboard a ferry in Thailand, where her family took her as a bat mitzvah present.

The remaining 116 passengers, including the girl’s parents and brother, were rescued from the fire that erupted aboard the Ao Nang Princess 5 tourist ferry on Wednesday, according to Ynet. The girl, who was not immediately named, was locked behind in one of the bathrooms, which was engulfed by flames.

“The fire erupted in the engine room, situated in the back of the ship, just as the girl was in the bathroom,” said Nati Hadad, who participated in the rescue operation. “She must have suffocated to death as the fire neared.”

The ferry was about seven miles off the coast of Ao Nang in the southwestern Krabi province when the blaze erupted, the news site phuketwan.com reported. Local fishermen rushed to the burning ferry to help bring survivors to safety, Ynet reported.

Staff from Israel’s embassy in Thailand reached out to assist the family, according to Ynet.

Thai minister meets Israeli ambassador after Hitler gaffe in official film


A senior Thai cabinet minister met Israel's ambassador to Thailand on Thursday after the diplomat said he was “saddened” by a government propaganda film that includes an image of a Thai school child painting a portrait of Adolf Hitler.

The film was commissioned by the Office of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as part of a campaign to promote traditional Thai values. Prayuth, who led a military coup in May, espouses 12 values in his vision of Thai national identity that his government requires taught in the classroom.

The opening of the film, which was screened nationwide in cinemas on Dec. 6, includes a sequence in which a smiling boy is applauded by one of his classmates as he paints Hitler's portrait against a red background and a swastika.

“I've told the ambassador that the director did not intend to offend anyone,” Pannada Diskul, minister of the prime minister's office, told Reuters.

“The director had decided to make changes to the film even before it made news to ease everybody's concerns. The ambassador understands this well.”

Pannada said the offending scene had since been cut.

The office of Israeli Ambassador Simon Roded declined to comment after the meeting, pointing instead to a statement issued by Roded on Wednesday.

“I was deeply saddened to see this trivialization and misuse of Nazi symbols in an official Thai movie,” Roded said in the statement.

“Unfortunately, it is not the first time we are encountering such ignorance of the history of the Holocaust in Thailand.”

Holocaust education should be included in the Thai curriculum, he added.

The director of the film, Kulp Kaljareuk, said he did not mean to cause offense

“We never had any ill intentions,” Kulp said on Thursday.

In 2013, Thailand's Chulalongkorn University issued an apology after Hitler was painted among superheroes in a mural for a graduation ceremony.

The use of Nazi motifs and regalia in Thailand is seen as a reflection of ignorance of the atrocities committed under Hitler's regime, rather than of political beliefs.

The phenomena is not unique to Thailand, said Efraim Zuroff, Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that fights anti-Semitism globally.

“This is one of the problems in the Far East where these things don't have the same resonance as they do in the Western world,” he said.

“Hitler is in restaurants, Hitler is in advertisements. Things that are unthinkable in the Western world.”

Relocate nationals from near Gaza border, Thai embassy asks


The Thai embassy in Tel Aviv asked the Israeli government to relocate Thai nationals working in southern Israel near the Gaza border.

The request on Thursday came a day after a Thai worker was killed when a mortar fired from Gaza struck the hothouse in which he was working.

Narakorn Kittiyangkul, 36, was the third civilian killed in Israel since the start of the Israeli operation in Gaza on July 8. His body will be returned to Thailand.

Foreign Ministry Information Department chief Sek Wannamethee announced the request in a statement to Thai reporters, the Bangkok Post reported. Sek reportedly said there are no plans to evacuate Thai workers from Israel.

Meanwhile, the Thai embassy has halted sending new Thai workers to areas within up to 24 miles from the Gaza border. Some 38 workers in the area also have requested assistance in moving to a safer place.

Some 25,000 Thais are working in Israel, most in factories or in agriculture. About 4,000 of the workers are located in agricultural settlements in southern Israel, according to the Bangkok Post.

 

Rabbi David Wolpe in Thailand: Have you ever seen a menorah dance?


Traveling reminds us that the old is distinctive and the new melds together. I had never been to Thailand, or indeed to any country in Southeast Asia. As the bus rolled through the streets, nothing in the facade of the 7-Eleven convenience store or the crushed muddle of Bangkok traffic proved startling. They were new phenomena, and modernity homogenizes the world: Golden Arches stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Suddenly though, rising from the Bangkok street was a reclining Buddha, long and languorous, golden and utterly unexpected. The old is distinctive and the new familiar: Buddhism is old. Rush hour is new.

The same question about what is truly old and what is new bubbles beneath the surface of Jewish life. Is it genuine or a newish fad to speak of Judaism as a crusade for economic equality? A traditionalist might say, in the manner of the paragraph above, tefillin old, social justice new. What is distinctive and therefore most precious about Judaism is its ancient legacy.

But that would be too hasty and censorious a judgment. Jews have never cared only for Jews. In the ancient Temple, the Priest would make 70 sacrifices, one for each nation of the world. Helping others mipne darchei shalom, because of the path of peace, is at least as old as the Mishna, a scant 600 years after the Buddha. Any cursory reading of the prophets teaches that economic justice and human rights may not be the sum of Judaism, but there is no Judaism without them. 

 So filled with ideas both old and new, incongruous as it may seem, a busload of Jews from across the United States rolled through the streets of Thailand arguing about the Jewish tradition. What does Judaism have to say about the equitable distribution of resources, or the rights to protection against violence and exploitation of sex workers? Is poverty in the village less onerous than poverty in the city? What was I, and the group from American Jewish World Service (AJWS) I was traveling with, doing in a nation with so little Jewish history? Jews have had a profound impact in numerous lands throughout the world, but the Jewish story of Thailand would fill, at most, a page — if the print were writ large. 

First there are delightful, surprising synergies. On my way into Bangkok, my guide was lamenting how the Buddhist calendar, because it is lunar, mandates a leap year every few years to balance things out. Crazy, huh? “Umm,” I said — thereby cementing Jews’ reputation for snappy repartee — “us, too.” 

We came during a 10-day festival of vegetarianism. Buddhists eat meat, the guide explained, but because they recognize that all meat eating involves death, they have regulations to remind them of that sad necessity of life. “Umm,” I said — invoking my now-familiar mantra — “us, too.”

Then he began to complain how little genuine Buddhist education most Buddhists receive. At this point I just kept quiet, because he was starting to think I was just copying everything he said. 

But perhaps nothing was quite so startling as seeing a traditional presentation, performed by a heavily made-up, costumed “queen” with delicate movements and slow, angled poses. The spectacle was a treat, but its name was better. “Menora” refers to the theater form and may have originated from a proper name. Still, however many Jews have lit a menorah, few can say they saw a menora dance.

AJWS is an organization whose stated aim is to realize human rights and help alleviate poverty in the developing world. But its mission is a specific kind of relief. Although traveling to some of the most bereft spots on the planet, its groups are instructed not to “give” anything to the people whom they meet. AJWS is not engaged in charity as traditionally conceived. The sole and significant exception is that we brought a bunch of T-shirts. That matters for reasons I will explain below.

A Thai woman from a group funded by AJWS offers hospitality to visitors. Photo by Angela Maddahi

Instead, AJWS identifies groups doing important work in their own countries, which are underfunded, and helps them with personal contacts and funds. The amounts are small by charitable standards — $15,000, $20,000 — but they can make a huge difference in the lives of struggling activists in poor countries.

Years ago, while I was teaching at Hunter College in New York in the 1980s, a rally to end apartheid in South Africa and a rally to free Soviet Jewry were both held on the same day. At the end of class, a Jewish student asked me which she should attend. I answered that she should go to the Soviet Jewry rally because, I explained, if you go to the Soviet Jewry rally, others will still attend the anti-apartheid rally. But if Jews flock to the anti-apartheid rally, who will be left to agitate on behalf of Soviet Jews? I added that at the next anti-apartheid rally, she should absolutely go. Ours are not the only causes worth fighting for. If we are only for ourselves we will never succeed in being ourselves.

The question of whom and how to help is urgent. Family first, but not only family. Helping outside your family is part of defining what kind of family you are. Additionally, the remarkable finding of recent surveys is that Jews who give to the Jewish community are also those most likely to give to general causes. In other words, giving is not a zero-sum game. The same people on the bus in Thailand who give time and money to remote villagers are deeply involved and invested in Jewish charities. The president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, former president of the borough of Manhattan, is also a learned, involved and committed Jew. In her early 70s, she is still constantly traveling to the 19 countries AJWS serves, indefatigably shlepping, exhorting and instructing. Rabbis accompany the trips to provide Jewish perspective, teaching and values. The aim of AJWS is to help non-Jews as Jews.

Thailand is a place where the poverty is not as dire as in many other lands in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean served by AJWS. It is that rare country that was never colonized and, even in a fairly remote village, while there was no cell reception or Internet, we saw several people crowded around an old laptop playing a game and a delighted child with eyes fixed on an iPhone. This village’s livelihood, old and arduous, is the slow and painstaking accumulation of rubber from trees, which forms Thailand’s main industry.

But there is deep poverty, political oppression and an enduring need, and among the marginalized remains a yearning to be heard. Thailand is still a country where criticizing the king will land you in prison, and criticizing the government can get you “disappeared.” AJWS has sought out local groups that are working for human rights and fosters their efforts through encouragement and aid. A fishing village is trying to hold onto the profit from its labors and limit the coal production in its vicinity; a farming village seeks to retain the right to its land, held for generations. Funding does not decide these issues, but it helps to give the people a voice. 

Living conditions in the poor neighborhoods of Thailand can be seen in this makeshift house, yet the residents are generous and anxious to preserve their traditional customs. Photo by Angela Maddahi

In some parts of the world, encouragement means making alliances with people like Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, an early recipient of AJWS grants who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It means rehabilitating child soldiers; fighting human trafficking; opposing the practices of forcing children to marry, sell their bodies or lose their parents. It means supporting war widows and promoting literacy in some of the most forsaken and poverty-stricken lands on earth. 

Like its neighbors, Thailand was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Our guide spoke to us of the courage of the women he knew who identified the bodies, row upon row, from the towns and villages where they lived. He did not want to leave his house until his son, a month after the tsunami, forced him outside and back into life. The undercurrent of trauma continues to ripple through Thailand. Think of 9/11, which took place a few years before the tsunami, and recall that more than twice as many people died in Thailand than in the World Trade Center Towers, in a country with a population roughly one-fifth that of the United States. 

It is not lost on anyone, from the groups we help to the guides we employ, that we are Jews. In a particularly dramatic moment on our trip, one man, through a translator, told Messinger that he had heard good things and bad things about Jews, but he now knew what we stood for because other groups came right after the tsunami and never returned. He said, in a moment of delicious incongruity, that he was going to show his children the Holocaust movie “Life Is Beautiful,” which he had seen, so they would know more about Jews. Another man, in a group that included many Muslims (who make up a mere 5 percent of the population of Thailand), said he knew that in the world there were those who had political divisions, Muslim and Jew, but what mattered was that we were there to help. We gave T-shirts to the group, and I like to think that across Thailand (and all the countries served by AJWS), there are children with “Jewish” emblazoned across their chests. 

These moments may not be crucial in themselves. But in addition to doing good, seeds are sewn. A child from that fishing village, who took a picture standing beside a rabbi with a kippah, may grow up to have influence in Thailand. A lesbian activist, who heard a judge in our group talk about presiding over the same-sex wedding of her own daughter in the United States, may feel less starkly alone. In many of the nations where AJWS works, from Chad to Cambodia to Burma to Haiti, this may be the only time people see a Jew in the flesh. And they see we are there to help them. In the metaphor of Piju, our Thai guide, translator and a member of the staff of AJWS, we were not fireworks who burn bright and then vanish. On subsequent visits, years later, people still ask after those whom they have met. 

For the guides and hotel staff, (who miraculously created a challah following pictures on Google) an image of our Shabbat celebration — from candles to Birkat ha-Mazon to Havdalah in the humid night — serves as a mental image of the beauty of our tradition. 

Of course ambassadorship, however precious, is not ultimately the point. To do good for instrumental reasons is politics, not mitzvah. AJWS is there to help organizations that are fighting for the rights of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the scared, the lost, the thwarted, the abused. The index of a society’s health all across the world is in its treatment of women, one of the pillars of AJWS activism. An impressive and persistent theme throughout the trip was that many of the groups we met with chose women as their spokespeople. We met a lawyer who came to speak to our dinner with her husband and daughter. When asked why she pushes against the government to secure land rights, a woman known by the nickname Thik said, “I decided I did not want to be a lawyer; I wanted to make law.” To encourage her and amplify her voice is to change the world for the better.

Working with 500 NGOs in 19 countries, the individual donations from AJWS are small. But to a struggling group, these grants of anywhere from $15,000 to about $25,000 can be the difference between advocacy and oblivion. Saving a single life is saving a world, the Rabbis remind us. It is not much, in the scheme of our good fortune, when there are so many worlds to save. As Ruth Messinger likes to say, “We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Naam, from Southern Farmers Alliance, summed it up this way: “If I don’t start, then others won’t follow, so it has to be me.” Somewhere along the way, the alchemy of intimacy changed all of us. We began, “I see you”; moved to, “I feel for you”; and ended, “I’m with you.” Turns out Hineni can be said in every language on God’s good earth.


David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

Conversion: Kimia Sun


Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Now Thailand must act against ‘Nazi chic’


Graduation Day, especially from your nation's most prestigious university, is a special time for celebration. It appears that as Thailand's prestigious Chulalongkorn University was bestowing an Honorary Degree to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn last week, some celebrants were posing at a nearby huge mural of superheroes outside the University's Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts building. Prominent among the 'superheroes' was Nazi mass murderer Adolph Hitler.

Hitler as a superhero? Is he an appropriate role model for Thailand's younger generation — a genocidal hate monger who mass murdered Jews and Gypsies and who condemned people of color as racially inferior?

We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center are outraged and disgusted by this public display at Thailand's leading school of higher education that has been on display for days nearby the University's Faculty of History building. We are outraged by those who created this travesty, by the young person posing in front of the mural using the Nazi salute and appalled by the apparent total silence of the University's elite.

We may be angered but not surprised. For young Thais have been snapping up Hitler T-shirts, donning SS helmets and applying Nazi tattoos. Meanwhile, no adults in the room stopped a Nazi fashion show at a fashion school and we are still awaiting an explanation from officials at a Catholic school in the city of Chang Mai as to who approved an entire grade of high school students parading down the main street of the city dressed up as Nazi stormtroopers, replete with mock guns and swastika appliques.

This past winter I brought the Wiesenthal Center's renowned Courage To Remember Holocaust exhibit (in English and Thai) to Bangkok's UN Hall, where I joined 500 community activists, students and diplomats to stand in solidarity with 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered by Hitler's Nazi Third Reich.

As moving and impressive that ceremony was, it clearly isn't enough. And neither is the belated apology just released from the University after it finally had the mural removed. It is time for Thailand to begin to educate their young about the truth about Adolph Hitler and Nazism.

It was his rabid genocidal hatred that helped spawn and prolong the greatest catastrophe of humankind — World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

And before any more victims of the Nazis are mocked and any more damage is done to Thailand's reputation, they should also tell their young people that by embracing Nazi symbols, they further empower and embolden today's Neo-Nazis, who hate every single person of color.

Now is the time for Obama to visit Israel


President Obama leaves Saturday for a three-day trip to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.  On the way home he should stop in another Asian country, Israel.  It's a trip he should have made early in his first term and is long overdue.

The timing is good.  He just won a decisive election victory that the Israeli prime minister tried very hard to prevent, and this would be a good time to have a heart-to-heart with him and the Israeli people about his view of where the bilateral relationship is headed over the next four years.

As soon as Benjamin Netanyahu recovered from the shock that his preferred candidate lost the election, the prime minister congratulated Barack Obama and told U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro,  “I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security.”

Does he really believe that after four years of sniping and trying to undermine this president and working for his defeat that Obama believes him or trusts him now?  Especially since on the day before the American election Netanyahu announced he didn't need American permission to strike Iran (as if anyone said he did), and that he was going ahead with the construction of 1,200 new homes in settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that he knew would upset Washington and only strengthen the Palestinian case at the United Nations where he is depending on Obama to try to block the PA's bid for membership later this month.

Netanyahu was one of the big losers in this election, and elections have consequences.

He has a long history of not being able to get along with Democratic presidents and collaborating with the Republican opposition to undermine them. It will take more than the kind of platitudes he delivered to Amb. Shapiro last week if Netanyahu is serious about repairing the damage.

The Republicans ran a very vigorous anti-Obama campaign in the Jewish community, largely fueled by Netanyahu's friend and financial backer Sheldon Adelson, accusing the president of not affording the prime minister the deference and policy support they felt he deserved.

They got it backwards. The relationship is a two-way street, but one side of the street has wider lanes than the other.  So much of Israel's security, financial, diplomatic and political well being depend on its relationship with the United States, and when there is a prime minister in Jerusalem with a reputation for undermining that relationship, meddling in the American election and losing the trust and respect of the American president, the question has to be asked:  is he a fit steward for this important alliance?

It was no secret that Netanyahu preferred Mitt Romney, and the PM did nothing to stop Republicans from using his image and speeches in their anti-Obama ads.

One Likud leader in Knesset, Danny Danon, a longtime bitter critic of Obama who came to the United States this year to encourage the president's opponents, greeted his reelection by admonishing Obama to cease trying to “endanger” Israel and “return” to the policy of “zero daylight” between the two allies.

He clearly does not understand that it is not the duty of the American president to march in lock step with the Israeli government regardless of its policies.  America is more than Israel's best (and often only) friend; it is its arsenal, its financial backer, its political and diplomatic bulwark.  There are good reasons the Israeli people expect their leaders to protect the American relationship and not undermine it.

The bad news for Netanyahu in this election is not just that he and his billionaire buddy Adelson backed the wrong horse.  There was a small uptick in Jewish votes for Republicans to a level not seen since the 1980s, but it had no impact on the outcome of the election. It showed once again, to the consternation of the GOP, Jews are not one issue voters.  With Jews giving Obama some 70 percent of their votes and telling pollsters Israel is not a top priority or a determinative issue in casting their ballots, the President has some new room for maneuver in the Middle East — if he plays it smart.

That starts with an early trip to Israel to reassure voters in person of his continuing “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” his determination to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and his readiness to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace when they are ready. It should be an opportunity for him also to share his vision of the Middle East and America's role in it over the next four years.  He shouldn't tell Israelis how to vote or that he feels their prime minister has mismanaged the American portfolio for the past four years.  That is a decision for the Israelis themselves.

On January 22, the day after Obama is to be sworn in for his second term, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new government, hopefully it will be one that understands the value of the American relationship, one that can work with the American administration and not against it, regain the confidence and trust of the President of the United States and work to repair the damage done to Israel's international stature over the past four years.

One of the reasons aides said Obama did not visit Israel during the past four years is that he didn't want to bolster Netanyahu, who he felt was trying to undercut administration policies. That was a mistake.  The reality was that Obama's failure to visit actually bolstered and emboldened Netanyahu, Adelson and the Republicans to go after him.

There is no excuse for further delay. A presidential trip to Israel is long overdue, and the sooner he goes the better.

Indian police say Delhi, Bangkok blasts linked


Indian police have established a link between a bomb that wounded an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi and a fumbled bomb plot in Thailand, the city’s police chief said on Friday, adding that arrest warrants had been issued for three Iranians.

New Delhi police said one of the three suspects had been in touch with Sedaghatzadeh Masoud, an Iranian man arrested in Malaysia last month in connection with blasts in Bangkok.

“Houshang Afshar Irani, who had come twice to Delhi, was in touch with Sedaghatzadeh Masoud, thus establishing his links with the terror module that executed the terror acts in Bangkok,” police chief Brijesh Gupta told reporters.

Gupta said the three men were not Iranian officials.

Though somewhat clumsy, last month’s attacks raised concern that a “shadow war” may be developing between Israel and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. At least four Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in recent years in attacks believed to have been carried out by or for Israel’s intelligence services.

The attack in New Delhi has been awkward for the Indian government, which has close defense ties with Israel but is also a major buyer of Iranian crude oil. India has tried to work around U.S. and European sanctions aimed at damaging Iran’s atomic development, which the West fears is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

In New Delhi, a bomber travelling by motorcycle attached an explosive to the car of the Israeli diplomat’s wife as she drove to pick her children up from school on February 13, hours after an attack was foiled in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The next day in Bangkok, an Iranian lost his legs when a bomb he was carrying exploded in shortly after an apparently accidental explosion forced him and two other men to flee a house they had been renting.

The wounded man and a second Iranian, arrested at Bangkok’s main airport, are in custody. A third Iranian believed linked to the plot, Masoud, was detained in Malaysia.

Israel accuses Iran of engineering the attacks. Iran rejects that.

India’s foreign ministry said it was seeking an Interpol order for the three men believed to be behind the new Delhi attack, but added that “no conclusions could be drawn at this stage”.

“We have informed the Iranian ambassador of these developments so as to seek the cooperation of the Iranian authorities in bringing those involved in this dastardly attack to justice,” spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement.

Thai investigators say the same magnets were used to make the bombs in India and Thailand.

Last week, Indian police arrested a journalist called Mohammed Kazmi who did freelance work for an Iranian news agency in connection with the embassy attack.


Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Annie Banerji; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel

Thailand bombs meant to target Jews, police chief says


Thailand’s police chief said bombs that exploded in the capital earlier in the week were meant to target Israelis.

“I can tell you that the target was specific and aimed at Israeli diplomatic staff,” the national police chief, Gen. Prewpan Dhamapong, told a Thai television station late Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

An accidental explosion took place Tuesday at a rented house in Bangkok being used by a group of Iranians. One of the Iranians later lost both of his legs when he detonated an explosive after being confronted by police.

Three Iranians have been arrested in connection with the incident.

Dhamapong said that the Iranians had explosive devices similar to ones placed the previous day on diplomatic vehicles associated with the Israeli embassies in India and Georgia.

One of the detained Iranians was brought before journalists Thursday, according to the Associated Press. Prewpan said the Iranian, Mohammad Kharzei, had “partially confessed,” the AP reported.

One of the Iranians was arrested in Malaysia; it is unclear whether he will be extradited to Thailand.

An Iranian woman who rented the house that exploded in the Thai capital fled the country for Tehran, according to reports.

The Iranians face criminal charges including possession of explosives, attempted murder, attempted murder of a policeman and causing property damage.

Iranian national believed responsible for Thai blasts


Bombs that exploded in a Bangkok house being shared by an Iranian national were being prepared for a large-scale attack against an Israeli target, unnamed Israeli officials are quoted as saying.

The unnamed officials made their remarks to the Israel media on Tuesday.

The Iranian national, who shared the home in a residential neighborhood of the Thailand capital with two other non-Thais, was seriously injured by a bomb he was carrying shortly after the house exploded Tuesday morning. He had thrown a hand grenade at police as they pursued him following the home explosion, but did not throw it far enough and was caught in the blast, which tore off his legs, according to reports.

At least four Thai citizens also were injured in the blasts, which occurred several blocks from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.

The explosions came a day after Israeli diplomats were targeted by bombs in New Delhi and Tbilisi; the India blast injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat. Israel has blamed the attacks on Iran.

“The attempted attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies are continuing to perpetrate terrorism,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement from Singapore. “The recent attacks are yet another example of this.”

Barak, who spent a few hours in Bangkok on Sunday, also said that “Iran and Hezbollah are elements of unrelenting terrorism and are endangering the stability not only of the region but of the entire world.”

Last month, 400 boxes of bomb-making material were found hidden in boxes for electric fans in a shop near Bangkok. Police learned of the cache from a Lebanese man arrested Jan. 13 who was alleged to be working with Hezbollah to plan a bombing attack. He told Thai police that the material was to be smuggled out of Thailand and used in an attack in another country.

Thai authorities arrest Lebanese man on Israeli tip


Thai authorities working with Israel arrested a Lebanese man alleged to have plotted a bombing attack.

“A Lebanese suspect from the Hezbollah group has been taken into custody by Thai officials and police are investigating further,” Chalerm Yumbumrung, the deputy prime minister, was quoted as saying Friday in an interview with Reuters. “Following concern raised by the Israeli embassy about a possible attack by a group of Lebanese terrorists in Bangkok, Thai police officials had been coordinating with Israeli officials since before the New Year.”

The arrest came after the U.S. embassy warned Americans of the possibility of attacks on areas in Thailand where tourists gather.

Thailand Chabad House again damaged by floods


A recently renovated Chabad House in Thailand has been ravaged again by flooding.

Heavy rains and flooding this week once again put the Chabad House in Koh Samui under water. The center recently completed a $50,000 renovation after floods in November destroyed electrical equipment, furniture, books and computers.

Rabbi Menachem Goldshmid told Chabad.org on Monday that he managed to remove the center’s Torah scrolls before water covered the first floor.

Goldshmid, who runs the center with his wife, Sara Hinda, said he working to help members of the local Jewish community, as well as the dozens of Israeli backpackers who visit the area each year.

The rabbi has not yet been able to enter the building to assess the damage.

Tikkun Olam, Thailand and an elephant named Yom


Who would have guessed that a 15-year-old boy born and raised in West Los Angeles would befriend a 49-year-old elephant named Yom who lives in a conservation reserve hidden deep in the jungles of Lampang in Northern Thailand?

Ever since my bar mitzvah, I wanted to do something that would connect me more to my Jewish identity. One way was to take the Jewish notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) more seriously. So every summer I have spent two weeks helping out less fortunate communities.

On the summer of my 15th birthday, I joined the Rustic Pathways camp, a 25-year-old community service group that takes students to impoverished communities in Third World countries. Our group of 15 American students went to Thailand to help out on an elephant reserve.

The elephant population is at risk in Northern Thailand due to the constant poaching and attacks from angry villagers. In the past, elephants rampaged through the villages, which made for an unsafe situation for both the elephants and the villagers.

Wanting to protect the elephants, the local people have made a conservation reserve in the elephants’ natural habitat. And because keeping elephants well fed and healthy is an expensive enterprise, the elephants’ lifelong trainers (mahouts) teach the elephants tricks so they can perform in local shows to raise money for their upkeep. Without such programs, the elephants’ lives would be in great jeopardy.

The mahouts work all but three days every month. By helping them, we would take some of the menial work from their exhausting schedule.

The elephant reserve was filled with native Thai shrubbery of every color. Hours after I arrived, a mahout showed me his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep level of love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom’s giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.

It is remarkable how smart elephants are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seatbelt when I rode her, always holding my legs against her neck to make sure I didn’t fall off. At the conservation camp, I learned how to take an elephant’s temperature (you don’t want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).

Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake once in the morning and once at night. There she submerged herself in water for up to 15 minutes at a time, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel.

After Yom’s morning bath, I took her to either the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her out to eat, she would pile food in her mouth like it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had recently come through the forest. With all that eating going on, I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day.

Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her daily activities. One of these activities included a miniobstacle course. I steered her through poles, instructed her to bow her head and made her walk backward. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she’d had more than 48 years of training at the camp.

Time always flew by when I was working with her. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put Yom back in the forest for the night. I rode her into the forest for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her for the night, I tied her down to a nearby tree sturdy enough to hold her back, or she would have been able to leave the forest and walk right back to the city of Lampang.

Before I left, I always looked at all the surrounding trees and took note of the fact that they would not be there when I would return the next morning. Yom would make sure to take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack.

Then, just as I would leave, I would look back at her standing amid the trees. I would stare in awe of Yom’s beauty in her native habitat, standing half hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.

I spent the evenings with the Thai counselors and staff members. They introduced me to their native dances that they had learned as children and their favorite Thai bands.

At nightfall, silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts’ singing and drumming on paint cans. There was no TV, no electricity and no running water. We were just 15 kids, a herd of elephants and a breathtaking forest.

It was there in that dark forest that I realized that if I give to a cause that I am passionate about, I will get so much more in return.


Phillip Nazarian is a 10th-grader at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Jewish Groups Join Quake Relief Efforts


For thousands of young Israelis, the sun-drenched archipelagos of Southeast Asia were the perfect destination to forget the rigors of military service.

But this week, that post-Zionist nirvana became a nightmare. The tsunami that swept India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands on Sunday plunged hundreds of Israeli families into a frenzy of worry over relatives feared lost while touring.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that witness testimony suggested that at nearly 70 of the approximately 500 Israeli tourists still unaccounted for in hard-hit Southeast Asian nations may have been swept out to sea and drowned. At least 33 Israelis are receiving treatment in hospitals in the region, the Foreign Ministry said.

For thousands of families living in or visiting the Indian Ocean region, Sunday’s catastrophe confirmed their worst fears: At least 45,000 people were killed by the devastating earthquake and tsunami, mostly in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.

A Belgian Jewish couple reportedly lost their 11-month-old son in the disaster. According to Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Matan Nassima’s body was found Tuesday near the Thai resort where his family had been vacationing.

Details were not immediately known, but it also was believed that members of the South African, Australian and New Zealand Jewish communities were missing.

Immediately after the tragedy, Israel and Jewish groups swung into action. Israel’s Foreign Ministry set aside $100,000 in aid for each of the countries hit by the tsunami. Four top doctors from Israel’s Hadassah Hospital were dispatched to Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the ministry’s request, Hadassah said. Among them were the hospital’s head of general surgery and trauma, its chief of pediatrics and two anesthesiologists.

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka turned down an Israeli offer to send military personnel to help with search-and-rescue efforts but said it would accept a smaller team.

North American Jewish groups also were participating in the relief efforts. The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was expecting to send its first shipment of medicine Tuesday to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It has been coordinating with 23 partner organizations in the region to assess needs on the ground. The group is hoping to receive donations to cover the cost of emergency supplies.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is working with its office in Bombay and elsewhere to coordinate relief efforts. The organization is hoping to provide food, water, clothing and shelter to countries affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Chabad of Thailand responded to the crisis by dispatching a rabbi to Phuket to aid rescue efforts and turned the three Chabad Houses of Thailand into crisis centers where survivors can call home, get a free meal or receive funds for new clothing and medical help.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has established a Southeast Asia Relief Fund. To contribute, call (323) 761-8200, or send a check payable to The Jewish Federation at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048 and write Southeast Asia Relief Fund on the memo line.

For families of potential victims, the waiting for news was excruciating.

At Erez Katran’s home in Haifa, a 24-hour vigil was set up next to the telephone in hopes that he would call. His family hoped Katran’s silence was due to the fact that he was incommunicado while sailing in the Bay of Bengal. Katran was among the Israelis who remained unaccounted for Tuesday, despite urgent Foreign Ministry efforts to track them down.

In addition to delivering bad news, the Israeli communications industry pitched in with the search efforts. Every major Web site set up a page where pictures of missing tourists could be posted in hope that someone would report their location, and one cellphone company offered its Israeli customers in Southeast Asia 10 minutes of free air time to call home.

JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

Relief Donations Sought


The following Jewish organizations are seeking funds to assist in the relief effort:

• American Jewish World Service, ” target=”_blank”>www.jdc.org, (212) 687-6200, ext. 889.

• B’nai B’rith, www.bnaibrith.org or by mail to the B’nai B’rith Disaster Relief Fund, 2020 K St., NW, Seventh Floor, Washington, D.C., 20006.

• Chabad of Thailand, 96 Thanon Rambuttri, Bangkok, Thailand 10200; www.chabadthailand.com. For U.S. tax deductibility, checks should be made out to American Friends of Chabad of Thailand.)

Blue and White in Bangkok


I had one night in Bangkok, and I was definitely feeling humbled by the traffic. My bus idled, stuck in one of this Thai capitol’s infamous daily snarls. I had little idea where in the city I was or how far there was to go, only a destination. And, most agonizing of all, I had less than an hour before Shabbat.

Shabbat in Bangkok? What business does a partisan of the 613 mitzvot have in a city of 1,000 temptations?

For the most part, jewelry. Though its first Jewish settlers were refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and Europe in the 1930s, both groups mostly left after the war, according to the World Jewish Congress. During the 1950s and ’60s, a mixture of Sephardim from Syria and Lebanon and Ashkenazim, both groups drawn by the city’s bustling jewel trade, put down roots. Most of them pray and meet at the Even Chen [Hebrew for “precious stone”] Synagogue in the Jewel District.

But I was more interested in the other major Jewish group currently routing through Bangkok: backpackers. An estimated 15,000 Israelis come through here every year. Some, if not all, make their way to Khao San Road. Chabad has a house there, offering Friday night services and dinner. I was looking forward to both, if I ever got there.

Fortunately, my stop came soon. And immediately, I knew I had reached the fabled backpackers’ paradise. Khao San Road and its neighboring streets and alleys are like a college town without a college. Internet cafes jostle for space with international calling booths, five types of foot massage, cheap laundry drop-offs, and pushcarts bearing pad thai. Signs cater to every nonprurient desire of a college-age Western kid.

A lot of them also cater to the post-Israeli-Army kid. Many are in Hebrew, advertising everything from “kosher” falafel to travel packages to cheap phone calls to Israel.

My Lonely Planet guide book was comprehensive enough to list Chabad House for its kosher restaurant, but I wanted more than dinner. I wanted a place to stay where I could meet up with Israelis hitting Bangkok on their ritual post-Army world walkabout. Another look, though, revealed that the guidebook actually mentioned the Panang guest house as being “frequented by Israelis.” I made a beeline there, only to discover it was all booked up.

Drenched in sweat, I trekked over to Panang’s franchise operation, Panang II, only to find it was no longer a restaurant-cum-guest house (a typical arrangement here), but now just a restaurant. A few more inquiries, a few more minutes toward the swiftly approaching sunset, and I finally found a vacancy at the Marco Polo, a hostel with tiny, no-frills rooms.

After a quick shower, I hurried into the Chabad House building I’d passed repeatedly in my quest for lodgings. But there was neither signage nor sign of dinner or services. I went up to a local worker there and tried asking in my pidgin Thai about dinner. It didn’t work. I tried English. No luck. Finally, I said the word “Shabbat,” and she responded, “Malon Viengtai! Malon Viengtai!” [Hebrew for The Viengtai Hotel]. Apparently, she was prepared only for Hebrew inquiries.

The Viengtai was easy to find, but the specific location of Shabbat still eluded me. Nothing Jewish in Bangkok is easy to find. I’d learned that earlier while looking for the Chabad kosher shop and bakery that mainly services its restaurants and school. The Web site information had seemed to put the bakery, as well as the Jewish Center, at an address that numerically didn’t exist. Finally, a phone call brought out an employee to guide us into the alleys and sub-alleys where the places nestled.

Under the halachic supervision of Chabad Rabbi Yosef Kantor and the culinary supervision of his wife, former Angeleno Nechama Kantor, the bakery/shop contains an eclectic smattering of Jewish essentials (wine, challah), luxuries (liqueur, fresh-baked rugelach) and local Asian exotica (rice noodles, coconut milk).

Finally, I located the upstairs ballroom set aside for the night’s festivities. Gathered there already were some 60 young Israelis, wearing everything from tie-dyed T-shirts to cut-off jeans to nose-piercings and hair wraps.

No sooner had I sat down, though, than the Chabad rabbis and leaders, who were definitely dressed for shul, announced Minchah services. They announced it only in Hebrew; in fact, the night’s proceedings all took place in Hebrew. I guess the assumption was that everyone here was Israeli.

Before dinner was over, the rabbis handed out song booklets, and soon the room roared with tunes, some familiar, some unfamiliar. Then a rabbi gave a d’var Torah, and it was here, quite frankly, that my Hebrew reached its limits.

Before the evening was over, I had met a handful of young Israelis, as I’d hoped. Some had been traveling for a month, some for a year. All had plans for continuing on in Asia and beyond. All thought it was self-evident, when I asked, that Shabbat at Chabad was what you did on a Friday night in Bangkok, even if that wasn’t the only thing you did with the evening. Their day of R&R was just beginning, even as mine was drawing to a close.