Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and there are only about 140 Indonesian Jews out of a total population of more than 260 million.
Once the Indonesia Islands’ raw materials and resources were discovered by Dutch colonialism, Dutch Jews played a key role in the development of the Spice Islands. While its date of establishment is unknown, an early Jewish settlement existed in the Sunda Islands.
During the 1850s, most Jewish families were of German and Dutch descent and lived predominately in Jakarta. In 1850, after visiting Indonesia, the Jerusalem emissary Jacob Saphir requested that the Jewish community of Amsterdam send a rabbi to try and organize the Jews of Indonesia. At that time, approximately 20 Jewish families lived on the islands. Most Jews in the 1800s, however, were not very religious and no Jewish community center was consecrated.
By the 1920s, Jews were arriving from the Netherlands, Baghdad, and Aden and Jewish community centers were organized in numerous cities. The Baghdadi Jews were the most observant of all Jewish Indonesians and settled in Surabaya. Israel Cohen, the Zionist emissary, estimated in 1921 that almost 2,000 Jews were living in Java, Indonesia. Most Jews worked as traders, with a few holding government appointments.
Many European Jews in Indonesia fleeing the Nazis arrived in the late 1930’s. In 1939, nearly 2,000 Jewish Dutch residents, and several other Jews from various European nations, were placed in internment camps after Japan’s invasion of the islands.
A few years before and after Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945 most of its Jewish population emigrated to Australia and the United States, with others going to Israel. After World War II, many Jews left Indonesia because they had lost their homes and possessions during the war.
By the 1950s, the Jewish communities were beginning to thrive again, especially in Surabaya. In the early 1960s, with the rise of nationalist and anti-Dutch sentiments among the people of Indonesia, many Jews immigrated to the United States, Australia, and the newly established State of Israel. By 1970, most of the thriving Jewish communities of Indonesia had almost vanished, leaving a scattered Jews behind.
Today, the Indonesian Jews live in West Java, Bandung, Medan and Papua. Two families live in Lampung, and 20 people reside in Jakarta and East Timor.
“Descendants of Iraqi Jews who came to Indonesia more than a century ago to trade spices still live and practice in Surabaya in the eastern half of the densely populated (and almost exclusively Muslim) island of Java. Their Jewish traditions are primarily ancient in origin (the Sabbath before Yom Kippur, for example, the community leader slaughters a chicken and swings it around the synagogue courtyard to dispel the community’s sins), though Dutch Jewish traders from the 18th and 19th centuries introduced them to some European Rabbinical teachings” (The Jews of Africa).
The Indonesian constitution guarantees religious freedom; however, the government only recognizes Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Jews have to register as Christian or another recognized religion on their official identity cards.
In 2003, Shaar Hashamayim synagogue was built in Tondano City, home to approximately 20 Jews. The largest of Indonesia’s synagogues, the Beith Shalom Synagogue in Surabaya on the Island of Java, was built in the 19th century by Dutch Jews and grew in stature during the 1950’s when the Jewish community was at its largest following the Holocaust. The synagogue had a Star of David painted on the front door and was fashioned in a traditional Orthodox, Sephardic style – men and women were separated by a mekhiza and the pulpit and congregation face the simple, plain wood ark. The ark had been empty since its two Torah scrolls were relocated to the Jewish congregation in Singapore.
There are a small number of Jews living in Jakarta, but most are not very religious. Some stores in the city sell kosher food imported from Australia. A handful of Jews secretly meet in a Jakarta suburb once a month to pray on Shabbat in a room converted to a prayer space in a private building. In 2016, the community in Jakarta held a traditional Passover Seder, which welcomed 50 guests including United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Muslim clerics also attended the Seder, marking the first time the Muslim community leaders had “broken bread” with the Jewish community at a holiday celebration.
In Manado, a mostly Christian stronghold town in which few Jews live, the government dedicated a good amount of monetary resources to bolster the community and attract Jewish tourism. In November 2010, the government paid nearly $150,000 to build a 62-foot-tall menorah on a hill overlooking the city, now possibly the largest permanent menorah in the world. This synagogue seems to no longer be in use. There is also no Jewish cemetery in the country.
During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008, Muslims extremists in Indonesia protested Israel’s actions and forced the government to shut down the Surabaya synagogue. In October 2013, a Dutch news site reported that the synagogue had been completely destroyed sometime during the past year, but it was not clear by whom and when exactly it was demolished.
The Jewish community in Indonesia is continuing to decline because of immigration sparked by an upsurge in anti-Semitism. “You must understand the history behind this hostility” toward Jews, Rabbi Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge told Haaretz. “We are all Dutch descendants. People call us bastards because our grandfathers occupied Indonesia. So we face two kinds of problem: One is our Dutch heritage; the other is the anti-Jewish sentiment. ‘You are Jewish, you are Dutch, you are the son of a bastard,’ they say. There is one solution to all our problems [according to the assailants]: convert to Islam.”
Consequently, most Jews hide their religion in fear of discrimination or persecution.
Indonesia is not well known for having especially close ties with Israel in public. Despite their pro-Palestinian stance and no official diplomatic ties, Indonesia has enjoyed a friendly relationship with Israel and Israeli officials since the establishment of the Jewish state. The state’s interactions were very limited at first, but during and after the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid the Israeli-Indonesian relationship began to grow stronger.
In 1990, Suzy Lehrer founded the Tempo Dulu Foundation for Indonesian Jews living in Israel.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a historic visit to Indonesia in 1993, marking the first trip of an Israeli official to the country. The following year Indonesian President Wahid visited Israel on the invitation of Shimon Peres to witness the signing of the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Wahid returned to Israel for a second visit in 1997.
In 2000, Peres travelled to Indonesia as the Minister of Regional Cooperation, and Israel’s Minister of Economy visited Indonesia in 2013 for the World Trade Organization Conference. A group of high-ranking Indonesian officials made a secret visit to the Knesset in 2013.
The Indonesia-Israel Public Affairs Committee (IIPAC) was established in 2002 by an Indonesian Jew living in Jerusalem. IIPAC remained silent and out of the public eye for eight years, but emerged in 2010 when they opened an office in Jakarta, Indonesia. Currently IIPAC has almost 4,500 members.
To facilitate and regulate the growing trade interactions between the two countries, the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce was founded in Tel Aviv in 2009. A subsidiary of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, the goal of this group is to strengthen the economic partnership between the two countries despite the lack of any official diplomatic ties.
In 2008, an agreement was signed between the Indonesian government and Israel’s Magen David Adom national emergency service for them to provide medical training to paramedics and emergency service workers in Indonesia. The Indonesian government has expressed interest in using Israeli manpower and advanced technology to build modern roads to the country’s hard to reach provinces.
Trade between Indonesia and Israel topped $500 million during 2014, with Israel mostly exporting high tech products and Indonesia exporting commodities such as food. Despite the warming of relations over recent years, Israel does not have a trade mission in Indonesia. Trade and administrative matters between the two countries are handled by Israel’s representative in Singapore, who makes frequent trips to Indonesia.
Indonesian authorities at the Israel Foreign Trade Association Conference 2016 expressed great interest in Israeli agricultural technology. According to an unnamed top Indonesian venture capital investor who attended the conference, “there is a great deal of business going on between Indonesia and Israel... Indonesia is a quickly growing country with a lot of needs in areas where Israeli tech has made important breakthroughs, like agricultural technology.”
Israeli officials barred Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi from entering the Palestinian Authority on March 13, 2016, because she did not plan to meet with members of the Israeli government during her visit. Marsudi was travelling to Ramallah for the dedication ceremony of a honorary Indonesian consulate in the Palestinian territories. Israeli policy is to not allow foreign ministers of countries with which it has diplomatic ties with visit the PA without also visiting Israel, although no formal diplomatic ties exist between Israel and Indonesia. Fielding questions about Marsudi’s visit, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely stated that Israel indeed has “unofficial” diplomatic ties with Indonesia. Despite lack of formal diplomatic relations, there is “continuous contact” between the two countries, according to Hotovely.
Five Indonesian journalists on a Foreign Ministry delegation trip to Israel were told by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, “The relations between Israel and Indonesia need to change.” The journalists met with Netanyahu on March 28, 2016, and discussed relations between their respective countries. Netanyahu stated following the meetings that he hoped the journalists visit would help pave a path to full diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Israel.
Yahya Staquf, secretary general of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, visited Israel on a goodwill interfaith trip during June 2018. Staquf’s trip, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, included meetings at Israel’s Hebrew University and talks with local Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, but no meetings with Israeli politicians or government officials.
Since 2009, Israel has seen a dramatic increase in the number and percentage of tourists visiting from Muslim countries. More than half came from Indonesia.
In Israel, Indonesian Muslim Leader Risks Backlash at Home, New York Times, (June 11, 2018);
“Indonesia's Jews Mark Passover in Low Key Celebration,” Haaretz, (April 25, 2016);
Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu to Indonesian journalists: Time to establish formal ties,” Jerusalem Post, (March 28, 2016);
Lahav Harkov, “Deputy FM reveals Israel's secret ties with Indonesia,” Jerusalem Post, (March 16, 2016);
David Shamah, “Worst kept secret: Israel and Indonesia do business together,” Times of Israel, (January 13, 2016);
“Israel sees sharp rise in tourists from Arab states,” Ynet News, (November 16, 2014);
World Jewish Congress;
Museum of the Jewish People;
“The Jews of Surabaya”;
“Indonesia,” The Jewish Travelers’ Resource Guide, (Feldheim Publishers. 2001);
Norimitsu Onishi, “In Sliver of Indonesia, Public Embrace of Judaism,” New York Times, (November 22, 2010);
Jerusalem Post, (October 5, 2013);
Neha Banka, “Inside the Secret World of Indonesia’s Jewish Community,” Haaretz, (April 22, 2019).