Despite unrest in Indonesia, a Jewish community finds peace among other faith groups


TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) — Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza, massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities.

They have startled Jews like Maryam, who asked to be identified by only her first name to maintain safety and privacy. She said she has heard shouts of “death to Jews” ringing out in the streets.

“Since the war [in] Israel and Gaza, we are really hiding ourselves because there is a big demonstration almost every day,” Maryam, who is in her 70s and lives in Jakarta, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “At Hanukkah, I used to put the menorah in the window. But now I cannot, I have to put it inside.”

Maryam is one of a tiny but unknown total number of practicing Jews in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Besides her small community in Jakarta, where 10 to 20 Jews meet at her house every Shabbat, 50 people from several Indonesian regions gather online regularly for services by Rabbi Benjamin Meijer Verbrugge. Another 30 to 50 Jews attend Rabbi Yaakov Baruch’s congregation in the province of North Sulawesi, a chain of islands northeast of Java.

Today, Baruch’s synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim in the city of Tondano, is the only brick-and-mortar one left standing in Indonesia, which is thought to have been home to about 2,500 Jews in the 1930s.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began, the protests have also frightened Baruch, but he has leaned on his strong relationships with other faith communities in his Christian-majority region to create what he sees as an umbrella of peace. Christians in the area have offered support to his community and a police officer has begun guarding the synagogue during prayer services.

“When I saw what happened in Jakarta and other cities, I felt like I’m not sure that we will still have a good relationship [with other religious communities] after this,” he said. “So I started to contact a lot of religious leaders, talking about positive things, talking about what projects we can do in the future to keep our relations strong.”

Baruch looks at posters with the names and images of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas. (Courtesy of Baruch)

Baruch hung posters of the Israeli hostages on the walls of the synagogue “so the Jews and non-Jews can come to pray there for the safety of all the hostages,” he said. “I brought interfaith Muslim and Christian leaders to pray for the safety of the Israeli and Palestinian people, not Hamas. I just want to show them that we have empathy.”

“When I do interfaith prayer, it’s not only Christian and Muslim leaders, but also Buddhist leaders, Anglicans,” he said. “They’re always asking about me, asking, ‘What are you doing? Are you safe?’”

It’s an example of solidarity in the midst of a conflict that has scared many Jews around the world, including in Indonesia, into hiding.

Across the globe, Jews have expressed what they call an almost unparalleled fear as antisemitic incidents — from vandalism of Jewish sites to shootings, bomb scares and violent attacks — have skyrocketed. Recent antisemitism statistics are not available, but a Pew survey from 2010 found that 74 percent of Indonesians had unfavorable opinions about Jews.

Indonesia has no formal ties with the state of Israel, but it has long called for a two-state solution and maintains some trade, tourism and security links. The country has recognized a Palestinian state since 1988 and has maintained close relations with Palestinian organizations since 1945, when Palestinian leaders expressed support for an independent Indonesia and encouraged other Arab states’ support through the Arab League.

Since the start of the war, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has repeatedly condemned the violence in Gaza and has urged parties to “stop the escalation, to stop the use of violence, to focus on humanitarian issues, and to solve the root of the problem, namely the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” Outside of politics, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Islamic clerical body, on Nov. 13 issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, mandating that Muslims support the Palestinians’ fight for independence and forbidding support for Israeli “aggression.” The fatwa recommended that Muslims avoid buying any products affiliated with Israel.

Last week, Israeli forces closed in on Indonesia Hospital — reportedly the only hospital still operating in northern Gaza — where health authorities said 12 people were killed in an Israeli strike on Nov. 20. The hospital, opened in 2016, was built with Indonesian funds and is staffed by Palestinians as well as some Indonesian volunteers.

Israel has accused Hamas of hiding its network of command centers and tunnels beneath hospitals in Gaza, including under the Indonesian Hospital, claiming that Hamas “systematically built the Indonesian Hospital to disguise its underground terror infrastructure.” Indonesia’s foreign ministry has denied those accusations, stating that the hospital in Gaza is used “entirely for humanitarian purposes and to serve the medical needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Indonesia’s foreign ministry strongly condemned Israel’s attack, calling it a “blatant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Thousands of people spread a giant Palestinian flag as they gather in a rally in Jakarta, Nov. 5, 2023. (Azwar Ipank/AFP via Getty Images)

Indonesia’s first Jewish communities date back to the 19th century, when Ashkenazi and Baghdadi Jews immigrated in search of economic opportunities offered through the Dutch colonization of the East Indies. The community peaked at an estimated 2,500 across Java and Sumatra before World War II. 

Hostilities toward Jews began to rise after the war, during the founding of a modern independent Indonesia beginning in 1945 and especially after the founding of Israel in 1948. Many Jews subsequently left for Australia, Israel and the United States.

Those Jews who remain in Indonesia today are mostly descendants of those colonists, and many hide their Jewish identity in public or have given it up entirely. Meijer Verbrugge, a native Indonesian and coffee trader, has said that many local Muslims see Indonesian Jews as the offspring of colonial occupiers.

A congregation made up partially of those descendants as well as new Jewish converts across eight areas in Indonesia, led by Meijer Verbrugge, has been growing in recent years. He estimates a total membership of 180 people across eight regions.

In 2015, he said a Christian group beat the cantor at a home synagogue in Ambon, a small island in central Indonesia. But he said local authorities stepped in and began helping the community continue their services safely. Similar support has been offered to his communities since Oct. 7.

“We are very proud of our police department and military who protect our country, and even the police department have regular visits to my place to have talks. They are ready to protect us,” he said.

Meijer Verbrugge has been advocating for national recognition of the Jewish religion for nearly a decade. But Judaism is not one of Indonesia’s six recognized religions today — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Although Jewish religious practice is permitted, this has meant that Baruch, Maryam and other members of the Jewish community have been forced to identify as one of those six religions on their official identity cards. Most choose Christianity.

“It’s not nice, but when Indonesia had their independence [in 1945], my grandmother said we are not leaving because we have a chance here. And she is right,” said Maryam. “But we have to change our religion [on official documents]. So we chose Christian because Jesus is a Jew, that’s what she said. And we went to a Catholic school after that.”

“We cannot use our wedding certificate, ketubah, to have a ceremony in Indonesia,” said Meijer Verbrugge. “We are supposed to use any other recognized religion’s wedding certificate. This is not fair.”

In 2009, a synagogue in Surabaya faced protests after it was designated by the Department of City Culture and Tourism as a cultural landmark. Groups demanded its closure several times until 2013, when the synagogue and its adjoining cemetery were destroyed for unknown reasons by landowners. Today, a high-rise hotel stands in its place.

In 2022, Baruch’s North Sulawesi synagogue was targeted by Muslim groups when he set up a small Holocaust exhibit there. Groups protesting the exhibition, including the MUI, pointed to the exhibition’s ties to Yad Vashem and saw it as part of Israel’s attempts to normalize relations with Indonesia and the occupation of Palestinian territories.

“Indonesians do not always distinguish between Jews and Israelis,” Mun’im Sirry, a professor of world religions at the University of Notre Dame, told JTA in 2022. “They also do not distinguish between the foreign policy of the state and the people of Israel. And that is a problem.”

Baruch told JTA that the issue of the Holocaust exhibition has since been resolved through dialogue with opposing parties. He has since adapted it into a permanent museum with the help of donations of artifacts via connections in Europe.

Maryam is less optimistic about the situation in Indonesia compared to Baruch. She describes connections with other religious organizations as a tax that Jews must pay in exchange for safety. Her own community donates money to local Muslim organizations “for our security,” she said.

“We in the Diaspora, we have no choice. You must trust Hashem,” she said, using a Hebrew term for God. “We have nobody. Who else? Hashem must protect us.”

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