The surprising history of Jews in Indonesia returned to the news recently with the disclosure that the last remaining synagogue in the world’s largest Muslim country was destroyed in early 2013. According to a Dutch website, “unidentified persons” demolished the Beith Shalom synagogue in Surabaya, on the Indonesian island of Java.
The synagogue has long since been out of use by the estimated 20 Jews who remain in the island nation. It has mostly been the site of anti-Israel protests and it was actually sealed by Islamic hardliners in 2009, according to the Jakarta Globe. Its now reported destruction comes at a time when the City Council of Surabaya was in the process of registering the building as a heritage site and has led to headlines but little action.
The synagogue, which is situated in eastern Java, was built in the 19th century by Dutch Jews; Indonesia was a Dutch colony for many years, only gaining its independence after World War II. The first Jews arrived in Indonesia in the 17th century with the Dutch East India Company. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were an estimated 1,000 Jews spread out among the cities and towns of Padang, Semarang, Medan, Malang, Bandung, Batavia, and Jogjakarta, as well as Surabaya. During the 1930s and 1940s, the community grew even more with Jews fleeing Europe, and reached a maximum of about 2,000 people.
Indonesia does not have formal relations with the State of Israel and Israelis are only allowed into the country by invitation and after undergoing several months of bureaucracy to procure visas. On the island of Bali, the only Hindu province in the country, there are regular Shabbat get-togethers of expatriate Jews and some Israelis who hold dual citizenship with another country, although these are kept quiet and not advertised. There is an Israeli-owned vegetarian and vegan restaurant in the town of Ubud.
The synagogue in Surabaya had white-painted bricks and a Star of David on the outside. Inside it was easily recognizable as an Orthodox, Sephardi-style building. An article on the synagogue in Latitudes Magazine dated from 2003 described the ark as empty with its Torah scrolls belonging today to a congregation in nearby Singapore.
The article quotes two Jews who lived in Surabaya in 2003, Leah Zahavi and Isaac Solomon. They describe the recent history of Jews in Indonesia as a community of traders who had lived in other parts of Asia previously – India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
During World War II, Indonesia was occupied by the Japanese, and Europeans from all locations were put into internment camps. The Jews worked in forced labor on the railroads, but were not killed as in Europe. After the war, when Indonesia was liberated, some Jews – many of whom had lost their homes and possessions – left the country while others chose to stay, with the 1950s referred to as the “peak of the Jewish community in Surabaya.” Lifecycle celebrations and holidays were openly celebrated.
That came to an end in the 1960s when unrest made Indonesia a more risky place to set up shop. A coup in the mid-1960s followed by widespread anti-Communist violence made many Jews fear for their livelihoods and even their lives. With their Dutch passports, many were able to leave – and most did, some coming to Israel as well as the U.S., Australia and the Netherlands. By 1969, the vibrant Jewish community was long gone.
Those Jews who are left are not listed as such in official documents; Indonesia only recognizes six religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
An even smaller Jewish community exists in the small, mostly Christian stronghold of Manado. Though there are only a few Jews in the city, the government has apparently decided to bolster Jewish tourism. In 2010, a $150,000, 62-foot-tall Menorah was built on a hill overlooking the city. Flags of Israel can be spotted on motorcycle taxi stands as well.