History of the Jews in Vietnam
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Jews are a minor ethno-religious group in Vietnam, presently consisting of only about 300 people. Although Jews have been present in Vietnam and Judaism has been practiced since the late 19th century, most adherents have been, and remain today, expatriates, with few to no native Vietnamese converts.
French colonial period
The first Jews to visit Vietnam likely arrived following the French colonization of the country in the latter half of the 19th century. There are a handful of references to Jewish settlement in Saigon sprinkled through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle in the 1860s and 1870s.
The Jewish Encyclopedia mentions a French merchant and ship-owner named Jules Rueff being active in Indochina in the 1870s, becoming "one of the pioneers of French influence in that country." Per the Encyclopedia of Jewish Knowledge, "in 1872 [Rueff] became one of the pioneers in the development of French Indo-China." He is also credited in other sources to have been both the "originator of the plan for the railroad of Saigon-Mỹ Tho, in Cochinchina, and the founder and general director of the 'Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine,' which greatly facilitated the spread of French trade in Indo-China by the route of Mekong." A steamship that traversed the Mekong was later christened the Jules Rueff to recognize his role in the region's maritime activities. Rueff was still active in regional trade as late as April 1889, when he co-signed a petition to the French government requesting relief on duties being charged on cotton imports from Indochina.
Between 1883 and 1886, Jewish soldiers and officers fought in the French army in the Tonkin Campaign. One such soldier, from a family of multiple members in the French military was Louis Naquet. Naquet, who eventually achieved the rank of Captain and was killed in action during World War I, received the Medaille du Tonkin for his actions in Tonkin and Annam, becoming chevalier of the 'Ordre Royal du Cambodge.
Early 20th century
According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Sylvain Lévi was the (one of the) founder(s) of the École française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East) in Hanoi. The École française d'Extrême-Orient's website notes that the school was founded in Hanoi in 1902.
According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, between 1929 and 1932, the U.S. Consul in Saigon was a diplomat named Henry Samuel Waterman, who was Jewish. In 1930, Waterman reported back to the United States about the growth of communism in Vietnam, but his superiors at the State Department discounted his report, saying that the "French authorities have been stuffing him with a lot of hot air about the communistic menace." It turned out however, that Waterman's reports describing the Cong San were accurate, and referred to the Dang Cong San Viet Nam (Vietnamese Communist Party), directed from Moscow and Canton, and indeed there was a "growing threat to colonial rule in Southeast Asia."
World War II and Vichy France
As late as 1939, the estimated combined population of the Jewish communities of Haiphong, Hanoi, Saigon and Tourane in French Indochina numbered approximately 1,000 individuals. There were also reportedly eighty Jews in Tonkin during the period of Vichy rule, of which forty-nine were in the military and twenty-seven were in the foreign legion.
In 1940 the anti-Semitic Vichy-France "Statute on Jews" was implemented in French Indochina (Vietnam) by its Governor Jean Decoux. In November 1940, Jewish people were limited to certain professions, and in July 1941 Jewish children were not allowed to comprise more than 2% of public school students. By October 1942, fifteen government employees were dismissed from their positions for being Jewish (among the fifteen was Suzanne Karpeles, the director of the Buddhist Institutes in Phnom Penh and Vientiane), and Jews were "fired from a wide range of professions,from banking to the insurance, advertising, administration and business sectors." One such individual, Leo Lippmann, the former director of the Hanoi tram company, was dismissed from his position even after resigning from his post to assume a lesser position. However, since he had been categorized as a Jew because he had two Jewish grandparents and a Jewish wife, Lipmann divorced and no longer fell under the Jewish Statute. When it was deemed by state officials that the statute would have an adverse effect upon their racial Vichy motives for the region – such as the case of Georges Coedès, an employee at the government sponsored École française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East), who was deemed useful by the resident superier of Tonkin – an exemption to the discriminatory laws could be made. The anti-Jewish laws were repealed in January 1945.
In 1954, with the dissolution of French Indochina, Vietnam achieved independence as a divided state, with a communist north and a capitalist south. The French Premier who negotiated France's pullout from the Indochina region thus granting Vietnam its independence was Pierre Mendès France, who happened to be Jewish. Prior to the French evacuation, the Jewish population in Indochina (which encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was reportedly 1,500, and most of those Jews were said to have left with the French, leaving behind no organized Jewish communal structure. On 25 May 1954 Robert Capa, a photo journalist made famous for providing the first photographs of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach, was killed while on assignment covering the French-Indochina War. The 1956 American Jewish Yearbook listed the Jewish population of French Indochina at 1,500, as noted above, but in its 1957 printing, there is no mention of a Jewish population in the region.
In 1971, about 12 French Jews still remained in South Vietnam, all in Saigon. During the Vietnam War, temporary Jewish communities were organized throughout South Vietnam, consisting largely of United States military personnel. Approximately 30,000 Jewish-Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam; amongst them, Colonel Jack H. Jacobs won the Medal of Honor for heroism for his service.
Gradually, as the communist government began accepting economic reforms, the number of Jewish visitors to the country increased.
The discovery of the wild saola species in Vietnam in 1993 made note in the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society's Fall 1999 issue. Although the "odd, elusive creature... possibly on the verge of extinction" was not being considered for consumption, it was noted as an example of an animal that exhibited both kosher indicia but lacking a "mesorah" – an oral tradition required by many halachic decisors to declare the animal kosher.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department's "International Religious Freedom Report" noted "There were no reported anti-Semitic incidents during the period covered by this report. The country's small Jewish population is comprised almost entirely of expatriates."
In 2006, Chabad opened a center in Ho Chi Minh City, which is considered to be the economic center of Vietnam. A documentary about the Rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Hartman of the Chabad Center was put online by Chabad. The film, (mostly in Hebrew with Russian subtitles) provides a look at the challenges faced by the emissaries upon their arrival, as well as a glimpse of the makeup of the Jewish community that existed upon their arrival. According to the Jewish Telepgraphic Agency, the Chabad Center is reportedly used largely by business people and tourists from Israel and the United States, and of as of 2007, there are some 100 Do Thai, or Jews in Hanoi and about 200 in Ho Chi Minh City.
- Cassedy, Ellen "Economic opportunities lure Jews to land of Ho Chi Minh" Jewish Telegraphic Agency 2007-09-30 http://www.jta.org/news/article-print/2007/09/10/104071/vietnamjews
- International Religious Freedom Report 2005 – Vietnam. U.S. Department of State.
- by Jacob de Haas, published by Behrman's Jewish Book House, 1946, page 404
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Rueff, Jules.
- Madrolle, Claudius To Angkor Société d'éditions géographiques, maritimes et coloniales, 1939 and additional reference is made to travel on this ship in Horace Bleackley's A Tour in Southern Asia: (Indo-China, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Ceylon, 1925–1926), published by John Lane, London 1928
- See  and footnote xxxv for original French source material, noted as "Datée de Paris le 16 avril 1889. Reproduite dans l'Avenir du Tonkin du samedi 8 juin 1889, N° 156."
- GeneaWiki: Médaille du Tonkin (French)
- GeneaWiki: Ordre royal du Cambodge (French)
- Birnbaum, Pierre The Jews of the Republic: A Political History of State Jews in France from Gambetta to Vichy Stanford University Press, 1996 ISBN 0-8047-2633-7 Pages 47–48
- Landman,Isaac The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia...: An Authoritative and Popular Presentation of Jews and Judaism Since the Earliest Times, 1942 Page 626; Comay, Joan & Cohn-Sherbok, Lavinia Who's Who in Jewish History: After the Period of the Old Testament Routledge, 1995 ISBN 0-415-12583-9 Page 231
- École française d'Extrême-Orient: History
- Alliance Israélite Universelle: Nord-Vietnam
- Appy, Christian G. Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945–1966 University of Massachusetts Press, 2000, Page 279
- Blatt Young,Marilyn and Buzzanco, Robert A Companion to the Vietnam War Blackwell Publishing, 2002, Page 122 ISBN 0-631-21013-X
- Statistics of Jews, American Jewish Committee, 1940.
- Jennings, Eric Vichy in the Tropics: Petain's National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940–44 Stanford University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-8047-5047-5 Page 145
- Marston,John Amos, et al. History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia University of Hawaii Press, 2004 ISBN 0-8248-2868-2
- Jennings, Eric Vichy in the Tropics: Petain's National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940–44 Stanford University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-8047-5047-5 Pages 144–145
- Raffin,Anne Youth Mobilization in Vichy Indochina and Its Legacies, 1940 to 1970 Lexington Books, 2005 ISBN 0-7391-1146-9 Pages 65–66
- Dommen,Arthur J.The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam Indiana University Press, 2001 ISBN 0-253-33854-9 Page 69
- Elazar, Daniel J. People and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of World Jewry Wayne State University Press, 1989 ISBN 0-8143-1843-6 Page 472
- Cohen, Roberta The Jewish Communities of the World: Demography, Political and Organizational Status, Religious Institutions, Education, Press Institute of Jewish Affairs in association with the World Jewish Congress, 1971, Original from the University of Michigan ISBN 0-233-96144-5 Page 74
- Jewish-American military participation. Fort Gordon Equal Opportunity Office.
- "עלה לרשת: הסרט התיעודי על חב"ד בוויאטנם ● לצפייה" (in Hebrew, Russian). Chabad. Retrieved 14 April 2015.