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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.

After World War II, many Jews left Indonesia because they had lost their homes and possessions during the war, but several families remained. 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, “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).

As of 2008, only two synagogues were still in use in the entire country of Indonesia - the more prominent one in Surabaya and a much smaller, lesser known one in the small town of Manado. Unfortunately, however, both synagogues were closed or destroyed by 2013.

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 Novermber 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 entire world. This synagogue seems to no longer be in use.

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 mechiza 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.

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. “It is not clear by whom and when exactly the building was demolished,” Freddy Instanto told the paper.

Since 2009 Israel has seen a dramatic increase in the number and percentage of tourists visiting from Arab countries, signaling a warming of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab world despite the looming possibility of a nuclear Iran. Over 250,000 individuals have come to visit Israel since 2009 from Arab and majority Muslim countries.  Indonesia contributes significantly to this number, with more than half of these tourists (an estimated 124,000) coming to Israel from Indonedia.  Other Arab countries that contributed to this increased tourism in Israel are Jordan (81,000 tourists), Malaysia (23,483), Saudi Arabia (38), The United Arab Emirates (168), and Qatar and Oman (147). 

There are a small number of individual Jews living in Jakarta, but most are not very religious. Essentially, the Jewish community in Indonesia is continuing to decline because of immigration sparked by a recent rise in anti-Semitism. Today, only about 20 Jews livie in Indonesia.


Sources: Ynet News, "Israel sees sharp rise in tourists from Arab states".  (November 16 2014)
World Jewish Congress
The Jews of Africa: other dispersed Jewish Communities
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).

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