Once the Indonesia Islands’ raw materials and resources were discovered by Dutch colonialism, Dutch Jews played a vital 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 arrived 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 1930s. In 1939, nearly 2,000 Jewish Dutch residents, and several other Jews from various European nations, were placed in internment camps after Japan invaded the islands.
A few years before and after Indonesia’s 1945 declaration of independence, 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 began 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 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 must register as Christian or another recognized religion on their official identity cards.
In 2003, the 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 1950s 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 mechitza, 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.
A few Jews live 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 where 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, Muslim 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 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 problems: 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 for fear of discrimination or persecution.
Despite these fears, the Shaar HaShamayim Holocaust Museum, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, was built by the local Jewish community in Minahasa. German ambassador Ina Lepel officially opened it on January 27, 2022, to coincide with International Holocaust Day.
Soon after, Muhyiddin Junaidi, deputy chairman of the Ulema Council’s advisory board, said. “The Indonesian government should act decisively and immediately demolish the museum because it is provocative, and its presence is not welcomed among many in this country.” He said the museum does not benefit Indonesian people and hurts the feeling of Palestinians. He accused the Minahasa Jewish community of trying to convince the Indonesian government to open diplomatic ties with Israel.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, told UCA News the council should be “taking lessons from the tragedy so that it doesn’t happen again.” He added, “The museum is important for the young generation to warn them that cruelty to others can result in the killing of millions of people.”
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 minimal 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 at 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 traveled 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 it 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 official diplomatic ties.
In 2008, an agreement was signed between the Indonesian government and Israel’s Magen David Adom national emergency service to provide medical training to paramedics and emergency service workers in Indonesia. The Indonesian government has expressed interest in using Israeli labor and advanced technology to build modern roads to the country’s hard-to-reach provinces.
Trade between Indonesia and Israel topped $500 million in 2014, with Israel mainly 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 many 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 traveling to Ramallah for the dedication ceremony of an honorary Indonesian consulate in the Palestinian territories. Israeli policy is not to allow foreign ministers of countries with which it has diplomatic ties to visit the PA without also visiting Israel, although no formal diplomatic relations 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 the lack of formal diplomatic relations, there is “continuous contact” between the two countries, according to Hotovely.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told five Indonesian journalists on a Foreign Ministry delegation trip to Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, "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 an interfaith goodwill trip in 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.
The Jerusalem-based Israel-Asia Center sponsored a project encouraging Israelis and Indonesians to engage online and over Zoom. The online program, which has about 100 participants from Israel and Indonesia, “is an opportunity for participants from both sides to dip their toe in the water,” according to Rebecca Zeffert, the Israel-Asia Center’s founder and executive director.
Some met in Jakarta in July 2022. The Israelis, who arrived on non-Israeli passports, visited Indonesian startups and toured some of the country’s best-known cultural sites. Israeli businessman Avraham Lifshitz, told JewishInsider, “he was apprehensive about visiting the country and concerned his Orthodox Jewish clothing could provoke hostility. In public areas, he said, he wore a hat instead of a yarmulke but was struck by the warmth demonstrated by the Indonesians.”
Indonesia has at times intimated it was prepared to establish relations. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said private interactions between Israelis and Indonesians are not forbidden, but further progress is held up by the country’s support for the Palestinians. Indonesians also see Israel through the prism of their Dutch colonial past and perceive Israel as a colonialist power.
Despite having no formal diplomatic relations, annual trade is estimated at $500 million.
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).
Konradus Epa, “Holocaust museum causes stir in Indonesia,” UCA News,” (February 2, 2022).
Larry Luxner, “In Indonesia, Israelis talk technology as prospects dim for diplomatic relations,” JewishInsider, (August 14, 2022).