Eli Fisher '16: An Indonesian Passover
Eli Fisher is the 2016-2018 Shansi Fellow to Gadjah Mada University. This is his second year narrative.
Over the past two years of living in Indonesia I have seen more Nazi paraphernalia and heard more Nazi references than I ever could have imagined. I’ve seen Nazi salutes in class, swastikas on backpacks, and a parade of about 30 motorbikes driving down the road proudly holding large red flags adorned with swastikas. There was even a Nazi themed café in the city of Bandung, and a wax museum in Yogyakarta, where guests were encouraged to take selfies with a life-size wax statue of Hitler with the Auschwitz concentration camp as the backdrop. However, personally as a Jew in Indonesia I have never really experienced anti-Semitism. I’ve had the occasional question about whether Jews are actually excellent businessmen and good with money - hinting at the common Jewish stereotype that Jews are cheap - but that’s the extent to which I have experienced anti-Semitic sentiment in person. Mostly, I have found that people tend to be curious about Judaism, as it is quite likely that I am the first Jew that person has ever met.
Partly inspired by seeing these Nazi symbols, during my time here I’ve become interested in learning about the Jewish community in Indonesia. The sources I have found however are sparse and often contain contradictory information, so it’s hard to get a clear picture of the history and current status of Jewish communities in Indonesia. But from what I’ve been able to piece together, here is a very brief history. Jews began settling in Indonesia, or what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, as traders and merchants during the Dutch colonial period from the 17th Century onwards. The Dutch Jews, along with Jews from Austria, Romania, and Iraq assimilated into mainstream Dutch society and therefore concealed or denied their Jewish origin. As a result, there was a lack of records kept (Hadler 2004: 299). However, the first reliable survey of Jews in the Dutch East Indies in 1921 recorded around two thousand Jews living in Java (Hadler 2004: 299). In 1942 when Japanese forces occupied the Dutch East Indies, the Jews were treated well until after a year into the occupation, the Nazis ordered the Japanese to intern all the Jews as they had done with other Europeans (Hadler 2004:203). The Jews were released after the Japanese surrendered and ultimately once Indonesia won its independence, the majority of Jews either returned to Europe, or migrated to the US, Australia, or Israel.
Thus, historically anti-Semitism is believed to have developed from two sources. First, Dutch and Germans living in the Dutch East Indies throughout the 1930’s became increasingly active in their support of the Nazis, which affected the perception of Jews in Indonesia. And second, during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, anti-Semitic sentiment spread through Japanese war propaganda. This even included prominent intellectuals translating anti-Semitic discourse in Indonesian on behalf of the Nazi’s. (Hadler 2004: 292)
However, in present day Indonesia, my impression is that the public display of Nazi paraphernalia and Nazi support does not necessarily originate from these sources, and not as an expression of genuine anti-Semitism. In part, I believe it stems from a general lack of education on the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s during World War II. When people are openly displaying Nazi symbols it would seem that they are not necessarily professing an allegiance to the political or cultural agenda of Nazism. From my understanding Nazism is either not taught in schools, or when it is, information about the atrocities of the Holocaust are left out. According to one of the few scholars who has looked into the sources of anti-Semitism in Indonesia, when the topic is covered, it is covered in a way that “…depicts Hitler as one of many leaders who brought a nation out of economic misery and onto the world stage, but omits anti-Semitism” (Suciu 2008: 53). This admiration for Hitler because of his leadership is something I have heard a few times, including during a role play debate game in one of my speaking classes when a student chose to be Hitler and his justification for choosing him was because of his exceptional leadership qualities.
Probably the most significant source of anti-Semitic discourse in modern day Indonesia seems to originate from hostility towards Israel in the conflict with Palestine and the Middle East in general, and from the religious affiliation with the region. Research done by Jeffrey Hadler, a prominent scholar of Indonesian studies came to the same conclusion, stating, “For while Indonesian anti-Semitism exists…it remains popularly an anti-Israelism.” (Hadler 2004: 308). I got a sense of this last year when Donald Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which led to a massive rally outside the US embassy in Jakarta. It was after this announcement that someone had mentioned to me, for the first time, to be more cautious when considering whether or not to mention that I was Jewish when meeting someone new and they inevitably ask what your religion is.
Even though I had an understanding of the context, seeing a large swastika will never cease to be jarring. And this was especially true a couple weeks ago. As I was driving in Yogyakarta I pulled up behind a car that had a picture of an eagle atop a swastika that took up about a fourth of the car’s back windshield. Something about the size of the symbol and having someone choose to display it in such a public manner I found particularly upsetting, and it definitely took a concerted effort not to say something. I had previously been curious about the communities of Jews living in Indonesia today, but it was after this experience that I became motivated to actually reach out to one of them.
While the number changes depending on the source, at the moment there is believed to be approximately 200 practicing Jews in Indonesia. These Jews are predominately Jewish descendants of Dutch or Iraqi migrants. Up until 2013 there were two synagogues in Indonesia, one located in a small town outside of the city of Manado in North Sulawesi, and the other in the city of Surabaya on the island of Java which was established in 1939. In 2009, Islamic hardliners had sealed off the synagogue in Surabaya and burned an Israeli flag to protest the country’s attacks on Gaza, and in 2013 the synagogue in Surabaya was demolished. However, it is not clear by whom or for what reason it was destroyed.
When I began to look into the plight of Jews in Indonesia today, the synagogue in Manado, and its Rabbi show up most frequently and have been featured in many articles including one written in the New York Times. I had thought about contacting this Rabbi and maybe seeing if I could visit, but getting there from Yogya would have been a bit challenging. Thankfully, there was another Rabbi based in Jakarta whose name showed up in a few articles, so I decided to look him up on Facebook and send him a message. I told him that I was interested in meeting up to learn more about the Jewish community, and as the Jewish holiday of Passover was coming up, I not so subtly asked him if he will be celebrating the holiday, hoping that I would get an invite. After a few days, I was delighted when I got a message back from the Rabbi saying that I was welcome to come to his Passover Seder.
Passover Seder in Indonesia
I really did not know what to expect and had no idea what I was walking into. I went into it with a lot of questions about his family background, the history of their community, to what extent they experience anti-Semitism, and especially given the current rising tide of Islamic extremism in Indonesia, I was very curious about how public they are about their Judaism. However, in typical Jewish fashion, I came away from the Seder having more questions than answers.
The location I was sent to was a very nondescript building about an hour outside of Jakarta. The building was located behind a huge orange gate on a very industrial street across from a gas station. The rabbi’s son welcomed me at the gate and took me up three flights of stairs to a large nicely furnished modern room with two large tables in the center. At the front of the room there was a pulpit, a Torah ark covered in a cloth with Hebrew writing, and a large menorah to the left of the Torah. There were about 20 people there, including 3 families with kids, a young police officer who is not Jewish but has become friends with the rabbi and is interested in Judaism, and an American reporter writing an article about Jews in Indonesia for the Financial Times. All the men were wearing yarmulkes and the tables were set up with the traditional Passover Seder plates, kosher wine, and pretty stale matzah, the unleavened flatbread only eaten during Passover.
Torah ark covered by a cloth with Hebrew writing
When the service began, it was performed in a mix of Hebrew and Indonesian. They were using a Haggadah, the traditional text used on Passover, that they had only recently translated into Indonesian and I couldn’t help but think that this might be the only Indonesian Haggadah in the world today. I loved hearing parts of the service that I have heard for years be spoken in Indonesia-especially hearing the phrase “It would have been enough,” or “Dayenu” in Hebrew, which is traditionally sung over and over, but was recited in Indonesian as “Itu sudah cukup.”
Other than the fact that most of the Seder was in Indonesian, everything felt very familiar and I had to constantly remind myself that I was not in fact in West Hartford, Connecticut but actually still in Indonesia. We went through the whole Seder in the same manner as I have over the past 25 years. This includes parents yelling at the toddlers to pay attention and the same sequence of emotions during the long Seder: first excitement, then slight boredom, followed by hunger, then feeling teased after eating parsley dipped in salt water and a small “sandwich” with unleavened bread, and finally, wondering how much more of the Haggadah we are actually going to go through.
The Seder was led by the rabbi, but it wasn’t until after the Seder was over that I really got a sense of him and his community. Immediately following the Seder he called me, the reporter, and the young police officer to gather round as he was about tell his story--a story that became increasingly hard to follow as it went along, as the rabbi frequently meandered from point to point with no clear link between them.
The meal being served
The rabbi was raised in a Muslim household, with a Javanese Muslim father and a European mother. However, his grandfather was a Dutch Jew who had taught him to recite Hebrew blessings as a child. At the age of 16 a few Muslim men began to make fun of him for being of mixed race and called him “kafir,” an Arabic term for a disbeliever. This experience was the catalyst for him to move away from Islam and ultimately, after meeting a Filipino Christian missionary, converting to Christianity and studying in a Christian seminary. The timeline is a bit murky but after having already converted to Christianity he met his Jewish grandfather once again who told him him he must “obey god’s mission” which sowed the seeds for a future shift towards Judaism.
It was while he was at the Christian seminary, which he studied at for 9 years, that he began reading the Hebrew Bible. He was moved by a passage in the book of Ezekiel that states, “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” This resonated deeply with him and he realized that “…I just know that these diaspora people have to return. And I said I have very thick Jewish blood in my life, and I recognize that I am Jewish from when I was born.” Thus he began to question his teachers saying, “These verses are talking about Jewish people, so what do you mean? So I have (to) return to my community and see the land.” He took this passage to heart, and ultimately embraced his Jewish roots.
Initially finding other Jews in Indonesia proved difficult, but in 2004-2005, with the help of the social network Friendster, he was able to connect with other Jews living in Indonesia after listing his religion as Judaism on the site. With the connections he made on Friendster, and then ultimately on Facebook a few years later, his Jewish community, now known as the United Indonesia Jewish Community, took shape.
It was actually never his intention to become a rabbi, but as he puts it, “Judaism can be a really expensive religion.” In order to hold events like a bar mitzvah, a Jewish circumcision, or a Jewish wedding they would have to fly in a rabbi from overseas to perform the events. So, he took it upon himself and became the only official rabbi of the community, while appointing six “para-rabbis” in their other small Jewish communities. These “para-rabbis” are located in Ambon in the province of Maluku, Jakarta, Papua, and Manado in North Sulawesi. Overall, according to him there are 108 “certified Jews” in the community.
It was unclear exactly what he meant by a “certified Jew”, and he didn’t go into detail about how one can become certified. But it was at this moment when, for the second time and seemingly out of nowhere, he mentioned the Rabbi Yaakov Baruch, saying “And you question to Yaakov Baruch- are you certified or not?” Rabbi Baruch is the rabbi located outside of Manado in Northern Sulawesi where the last remaining synagogue in Indonesia is located. For this reason, Rabbi Yaakov and his small community have received the majority of news coverage of Jews currently living in Indonesia. In fact, the American reporter had recently come from meeting Rabbi Baruch in Manado. So earlier in the night when he was discussing contacting Indonesian Jews on Facebook, the rabbi said to the reporter that, “I had communicated with your lovely friend Yaakov Baruch, and then I found that he cheated me a lot, I was cheated.” After his comment about questioning Rabbi Yaakov’s certification, he followed with a big laugh and continued, “So if I stand next to Yaakov Baruch, people will believe Yaakov more than I because my appearance is not convincing…because he looks very Jewish.”
It became fairly apparent to me that a big part of what bothered him about Rabbi Baruch was that Rabbi Baruch gets more attention from the press than he does. I wanted to delve a little deeper into this so I asked, “Have you ever met each other?” He said they had met once and that “…he took my picture and spread (it) everywhere…I don’t like him. He’s very manipulative. He always do(es) the publication about his synagogue, but my question is, did you meet the people to do the minyan? (the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations) He only exposed himself in the synagogue, for fundraising to get money for himself.”
So there’s only 2 Indonesian rabbis living in Indonesia and they don’t get along. I found this both fascinating and hilarious, as it struck me as being so perfectly Jewish. And it is immediately reminiscent of a classic Jewish joke which has a few versions, one of which is:
A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, and the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I would never set foot in."
When the discussion turned to the issues related to his life as a Jew in Indonesia, such as what they write on their Identification Card, anti-Semitism, and how public they are about their Jewish practice and identity, things got a bit confusing and the rabbi became increasingly vague. I couldn’t tell for sure but I suspected that the fact that there was a reporter there working for an international publication might have affected what he was telling us. Either way, these were questions I know I was initially very curious about coming in, and questions family and friends asked me about following my time at the Seder. However, after leaving the Seder I really did not know how to answer them.
I was very curious to discuss what religion this community writes on their Identity Card, known in Indonesia as a KTP. In Indonesia all citizens are required to identify with one of the six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. You also have the option to leave the religion column blank, but that can lead to difficulties with marriage registration and accessing civil administration services. The topic of the KTP religion column can be quite contentious and has gotten a fair amount of attention recently, as last November the Indonesian Constitutional Court made a landmark decision to allow followers of indigenous faiths to state their beliefs on their KTP.
I had initially asked the rabbi about what they put on their KTP earlier in the night and he said Protestantism. However, when the reporter asked him the same question later on he said they choose to leave it blank. But he also said that leaving it blank can be very dangerous since, according to him, people who leave the column blank may be at risk of being considered a communist. Which in Indonesia, because of the very complicated history of the Communist Party, could lead to a whole other set of difficulties. He then said that if he put Islam on his KTP and did not go the mosque, “they will come for me.” I tried to clarify this but before I had the opportunity to, he changed the subject and went in another direction. To make things even more confusing, when I read the article later published by the reporter who attended the service, she quoted the rabbi’s wife saying she listed Protestantism on her KTP.
When discussing life as a Jew in Indonesia, he said that sometimes he feel as if he “…is not needed in this country” and that “maybe this is not my place as… our life in Indonesia cannot be maximized, we can only survive here.” He went on to say that “We are a very very minority but…there is a way for us to survive, we have a lot of difficulties but we always survive, this is our strength.” I suspected, as did the reporter, that some of these difficulties he was referring to might have been related discrimination and anti-Semitism. This was in part based on one of the articles published soon after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, where the rabbi stated that his community has to practice in secrecy, especially when tensions rise between Israel and Palestine. However on this topic, he only had two things to say.
First he said, “You will not recognize me on the street” but then stated that in public he will often wear a yarmulke which he feels comfortable doing, but for reasons I found a bit off-putting. He said people have sometimes approached him, but they do not harm him because he tells them he is the son of a Javanese Muslim who worked as a district attorney and thus, “they feel scared because you know the children (that) come from the ministry of law still have power we can still use.” And second, in response to a question about anti-Semitism, he told us that once a pastor had come to his house and tried to kill him, but did not go into much detail about the incident. After telling us this he went on to explain how he is very careful about who he lets come to his houses and stressed to the reporter, for the second time, not to publish the address of the location of the Seder. And that was the end of the conversation.
Spurred by my experiences of witnessing Nazi symbols and seemingly anti-Semitic discourse, I had come to this Seder curious about what life was like in Indonesia for a group of people practicing a religion as an extreme minority, in a country where religion is often at the forefront of the country’s political, economic, and cultural life. I wanted to get a sense for how a group of people who identify with a religion in a constitutionally secular country grapple with the paradoxical fact that they cannot legally identify with that religion. I came away surprised that there may not be any simple answers to the questions I had and yet, in this country, I have come to realize that no questions about religious identity have any simple answers.
Hadler, Jeffrey. “Translations of Antisemitism: Jews, The Chinese, and Violence in
Colonial and Post-Colonial Indonesia.” Indonesia and the Malay World, vol. 32,
no. 94, Nov. 2004, pp. 291–313.
Suciu, Eva Mirela. “Signs of Anti-Semitism in Indonesia.” The University of Sydney,