Unlike other "overseas territories" such as Brazil, Surinam, Curaçao and New Amsterdam, a Jewish community with an accompanying infrastructure, such as a synagogue, hardly got off the ground in the Dutch East Indies. Traces of the Jewish inhabitants are therefore hard to find. And yet there were Jewish inhabitants in the Dutch East Indies...
Java was regularly visited by Jewish merchants from Soeratte. But not from the Netherlands at first. As long as the East India Company held sway in the East Indies there were not many Jews from the Netherlands who ended up in the East Indies.
This seems strange because the capital of the Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands played an important role in the West India Company (and with it the conquest of Brazil) and also in the development of the East India Company. In Brazil a synagogue was built in Mauritsstad within a short period of time and in the Dutch East Indies there were no such traces...
The reason for this must be sought in the fact that the Dutch East India Company made use of relatively few people and cleverly manipulated the existing power structure in the Dutch East Indies in order to safeguard its interests. During the period in which the Dutch East India Company exercised its influence over the Dutch East Indies the Jews in the Netherlands were excluded from many public offices and companies. When few people worked from the Netherlands, this made the contingent of Jews travelling to the East very small.
Things changed at the end of the 18th century. The directors of the synagogues were asked to draw up rules to make participation in the Company possible. This was prompted by one of the wars against England in 1781. There was a shortage of ships and the help of the Jewish physician Jacob Lion Arons was called in to recruit Jewish shipmen. The rules that were drawn up concerned provisions for ritually prepared food and work on the Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
No figures are known about Jewish shipmen who went to the Dutch East Indies after this measure, but it is plausible that the first Jews from the Netherlands ended up in the East Indies at that time.
Jacob Saphir, an envoy from Jerusalem, visited Batavia around 1850 and met a Jewish merchant from Amsterdam. He told him that at that time about twenty Jewish families of Dutch and German origin lived on Java. Some served in the colonial army and lived in Semarang and Surabaya. These Jews had little interest in Judaism, a Jewish religious congregation was lacking.
Saphir made a request to the Jewish community in Amsterdam and sent a rabbi who had the task to establish congregations in Batavia and Semarang. This had to be possible, because there were no obstacles to practicing the Jewish religion in the Dutch East Indies. From a Christian point of view there was something called "Indian indifferentism", so there was little opposition. The present mission from a Christian angle focused on the natives and not on the few Jews.
However, the arrival of the rabbi was of no real benefit. There were already many mixed marriages, the number of Jewish women was low. The Muslims in India did not adhere to their food laws and the Jews in India lacked the preconditions to adhere to the food laws, so the religious feeling became even less when staying longer. And yet around 1860 some Jews celebrated the High Holidays in Batavia, probably in the Bappenas building, a building that was also used by the Freemasons and is now used by the government.
In the 19th century the Jews were allowed to work for the government. In addition, trade flourished and many Jews came to the Indies. However, a number of private companies did not employ Jews, such as the Javanese Bank, the Dutch East Indies Trading Bank and a number of shipping companies until 1925. De Factorij - a Dutch trading company - did not employ any Jews until 1936.
The Jews who arrived in the Dutch East Indies therefore felt first and foremost Dutch. There was little intensive contact between the Jews in the East Indies. Attempts were made to improve these contacts, but this never led to a real Jewish community. So in the 19th century there were Jews in the Dutch East Indies and they quickly assimilated to ensure their existence.
This was the case to the outside world. When contacts did exist, they themselves felt that they were a small but high-quality community where the Jewish virtues of mercy and justice were held in honor. In almost all Jewish families in the Dutch East Indies there was assimilation, partly with Indonesian families, partly with (Indo)European families. As a result, many Jews lost their Jewish identity and were deprived of their religion.
Israel Cohen, secretary of the Zionist World Organization, visited Java in 1921. In his reports he painted a little positive picture of Jewish life in the Dutch East Indies. He called it "the Jewish death, but without a Jewish cemetery", which is almost literally so, because even a Jewish cemetery was hardly to be found in the Dutch East Indies. It was not until 1922 that a separate Jewish section was established in Batavia at the Laanhof General Cemetery, where a total of 26 people were buried until 1937.
From the 1920s onwards there was a change in Jewish life in the Dutch East Indies. The number of Jews had greatly increased and the sense of solidarity grew. This was mainly the work of Mr. I. Hen and Mr. S. I. van Creveld.
Around 1932 there were 2000 Jews living in the Dutch East Indies, 1500 of whom lived on Java. They worked in retail and wholesale trade, in private professions, at cultural institutions or with the government. There were few Jews working in the army, but they did have a number of seats in the People's Council and the Vice-Presidents of the Supreme Court and the Council of the Dutch East Indies were of Jewish descent.
Contacts with the Netherlands
In order to promote the solidarity of the Jewish community in the East Indies, an attempt was made to strengthen ties with the Jewish community in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands there were repeated requests to be actively involved with the Jews of the Dutch East Indies. Requests for subsidies were submitted to successive ministers of Colonies in order to pay for a rabbi who should have gone to the Dutch East Indies. The requests were rejected. Also the NIK was accused of a not very active attitude.
Now there was another group that had a special position in the Dutch East Indies and that did not come from Europe, the Baghdad Jews. This group was of Sephardic origin and came from Iraq, Yemen or Palestine. The rite around the religion deviated from them and with that they became a clearly separated group. In addition, they often had very different professions and perceptions of life. There was a large gap between the Baghdad Jews and the other Jews in the Dutch East Indies.
Both groups had come to the East Indies for a completely different reason. The Baghdad Jews came from economic and moral misery. The Jewish immigrants from the Netherlands rarely came to the Indies because of lack of bread or anti-Semitism. The Jews from the Netherlands in the 20th century often had a good position, were often members of the upper echelons of Indonesian society and lived far above the indigenous and regularly even above the level of the Indies. The Baghdad Jews lived in very simple circumstances. They often knew the Arab culture well and adapted more easily to Indian society. In addition, there were language differences between the two groups and for these reasons there was little interaction between them.
And there was another difference. The "Dutch" Jews in the Dutch East Indies saw themselves as through-going. This can be seen from the fact that the children were often sent to Europe to study and usually they themselves planned to return to Europe as soon as possible. The Sephardim from the Middle East saw the Dutch East Indies as their homeland and formed their Jewish community there. In Surabaya they founded a synagogue, the only one on Java. Although contact was limited, there were attempts to allow the children of the Baghdad Jews to attend Dutch schools and Jewish youth associations, but this too remained very limited.
The synagogue of Surabaya
The story about the synagogue of Surabaya is a sad one. This synagogue, Beth Shalom, stood since the fifties at the Jalan Kayun 4, afterwards and wedged in between other buildings. It was once the home of a Dutch doctor and was built in 1939. The building became a synagogue and around 1970 it was used by the last eight Jewish families in Surabaya. The synagogue was the center of their Jewish life.
In 2003 there were still three Jewish families living in Surabaya. Together about 20 people, just enough to make minjan, celebrate Passover and hold a service. But not on every Sabbath, the community was not very orthodox. In 2003 there was no rabbi and no chazzan. A rabbi never had Surabaya, the chazzan left for the United States that year.
In 2009 the synagogue was closed by militant Muslims and a flag of Israel was burned in front of the synagogue. In 2013 the synagogue was destroyed by a group of local residents. Now nothing remains of the synagogue. What is left of the three families that were still there in 2003 is not known.
There are still Jewish cemeteries in Surabaya, Semarang and Palembang. The only synagogue left in Indonesia is the Menado synagogue in North Sulawesi.
Jewish consciousness in the Dutch East Indies
The absence of a synagogue and the absence of a rabbi had far-reaching consequences for Jewish religious life in India. Meetings were organized by S. I. van Creveld, among others, in the Bappenas building, but there was little support for this and a Jewish congregation was not established.
There were, however, a number of religious practices carried out in the Indies. There were persons present who were authorized to make a choepa (marriage) and who were allowed to make a ketoeba (marriage document). There is doubt whether this happened frequently, most of them were already married or got married during a leave of absence in the Netherlands. Furthermore there was a moheel in India and the Brit Mila could be performed (moheel = circumciser, brit mila = circumcision).
There were no kosher bakers or butchers, but as a Jew one could buy halal meat from the butcher in the Islamic Indies. In the thirties the bond between the Indian Jews became stronger and from 1926 the monthly magazine Erets Israel appeared. This became an important binding agent. It was distributed free of charge with a circulation of 900 and reached about 2000 - 2500 Indian Jews. In addition, Jewish youth organizations came up, it was believed that the youth should be persuaded of a positive Judaism.
Anti-Semitism was partly inspired by emerging Nazism and the NSB. The latter had a department in India. Why did the NSB exist in India?
The Dutch in the East Indies were a small population group and formed the ruling class in Indian society. The political policy was not aimed at uniting the ethnic groups, on the contrary, there was an increasing political focus on the "white people" and on conservative elements from the Netherlands. This was the breeding ground for the NSB in the Indies. Anti-Semitism in the Indies was already older than the rise of the NSB. Already in the twenties there were regular anti-Semitic statements in the Dutch East Indies newspaper "Nieuws van de Dag" (News of the Day), in the thirties the statements became even stronger. In 1935 India was visited by Musschert, the leader of the NSB. In 1937 the NSB had 5000 members in India.
S. I. van Creveld wrote about the anti-Semitic in the 'Central magazine for the Israelites in the Netherlands': "The anti-Semitic feeling among the people who were sent out speaks according to what they were accustomed to in their country of origin: among the Dutch it is therefore not of contemplative influence, albeit that symptoms are not rare. In addition, there are the banks, which are also known in the Netherlands, which do not employ Jews and the "incidental" expressions of hatred and contempt, against which action is sometimes taken, while the new political currents, especially those inspired by Germany, must be monitored". According to Van Creveld, the Indonesians had little knowledge of Jews. Here and there there there was some talk of Islamic anti-Jewish propaganda, but this was of little significance.
In 1933 Jewish refugees came to the Indies after Hitler's seizure of power in Germany. This number increased even more when the Second World War broke out in Belgium and the Netherlands; they reached the East Indies via the free part of France. However, these refugees were not welcome in the Indies. After their arrival there was a screening and the refugees were housed separately on the island "Onrust". After a while the refugees were transferred to a country house near Buitenzorg (Bogor), but also here police surveillance remained present. After a few weeks the refugees were allowed to settle in India. However, it was not easy for the refugees to build shelter and an existence and the already present Jewish community in India took care of the shelter. Within a short period of time, however, India was at war with Japan and the refugees were treated just like the other Europeans.
The Japanese occupation
Immediately after the Netherlands was overrun by Germany in 1940 all (alleged) enemy elements were interned in the East Indies - the island of Onrust was again used as a location off the coast with Batavia. Jews from Germany, Romania and Austria were also interned here. The backgrounds of these Jews were checked and eventually they were released. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 it became clear to the majority of the Indian population that the Indies would also be involved in the war.
Within the Jewish community the question arose what the Japanese would do with the Jews. Because of the experiences in Europe, many Jews in the Indies saw the situation gloomy and there was so much fear that a Jewish family committed suicide after the Japanese invasion.
There were also Jews who assumed that the contrast between white and Jewish was so dominant in India that it would mask the difference between non-Jew and Jew, and there would be no room for anti-Semitism during the Japanese occupation. Their opinion changed when, on April 2, 1943, during a radio speech in Batavia, Japanese Lieutenant Colonel Murase Mitsuo said the following in Bahasa Indonesia: "Bahaja Jahoedi haroes dibanteras", or "the Jewish danger must be eradicated. Anti-Semitism from the occupier began and on April 5, 1943, an article against the 'Jahoedi' appeared in the Indonesian newspaper Pembangoenan. From August 1943, Jews in the East Indies heard the appalling reports about the fate of Jews in Europe; thousands of Dutch Jews were said to have been deported to Poland to be exterminated. In September 1943, a number of Jews were arrested together with Freemasons and ended up in the camps. This 'September razzia' was the beginning of anti-Semitic measures by the Japanese.
Initially, no difference was made between Jews and non-Jews. Jews with the nationality of one of the Allies were placed in Japanese camps. The Baghdad Jews were not placed there, they were considered Asians; later they were also interned when the Japanese began to consider them British subjects, however, it is also possible that this internment started after the visit of a German delegation to the East Indies. It is certain that after this visit the Jews in the East Indies had to register as Jews and that from 1943 onwards the Jews from Germany, Austria and Italy, who were not interned by the Japanese because they did not come from allied countries, were interned.
In 1943 anti-Semitic propaganda began and the oppression of the Asian peoples was partly attributed to the Jews. The Europeans and Americans were seen as the Jews' wilful instruments. In April 1943, Colonel Yamamoto said in a speech in Batavia on the occasion of the Japanese emperor's birthday: "The policy which the Jews in America and England used to subjugate and colonize the thousand million Asians consisted of separating each section of the population and causing discord and conflict within one and the same Asian people. If we do not defend ourselves with all our might against the attack of the Jews, we, a thousand million Asians, will forever become the slaves of the Jewish people. A "Jewish question" was unknown in the Indies and the Japanese attitude was rather artificial.
Jews in the Japanese camps
During the first years of the Japanese occupation only different nationalities were distinguished and no distinction was made between Jews and non-Jews. From 1944, however, at the request of Nazi Germany's ally, the Japanese began to register the Jews and bring them together in internment camps. What did it mean to be Jewish in the Japanese camps? Were there anti-Semitic measures in these camps?
Experiences differ per camp. According to a Jewish prisoner of war who was forced to perform forced labor throughout the war on the Japanese island of Shikoku, it did not matter if people were Jewish in Japan.
The barracks where groups of Jews sat together were said to have arisen because the Jews sought each other out. But sources also show a different side of the story. In the autumn of 1944 several Jewish women were brought together in a special camp, Tangerang. Tangerang was indeed called the 'Jewish Camp'. However, there were also other groups in this camp. Jews were housed here in a separate han (section), which was called the 'Jodenhan'. Jews in some camps, as well as the political prisoners, were worse off than the rest of the internees. Together with the 'Baghdad Jews' they were treated as real enemies and were given the worst barracks. Also in Tangerang the Jews were the last to get the food, so some things were already finished when it was their turn. The heaviest work had to be done by Jews.
At first the general chores in the camps were done together and so Jews were not separated in this work, but later Jewish children were no longer allowed in the work teams and Jewish women were no longer allowed to be hancho (camp elders), not even of their own han.
A number of Jews were also confronted with the anti-Semitic feelings of their Dutch compatriots in the camps, especially since they were initially placed in the camps with a group of NSB members. After the liberation, Jews were confronted with anti-Semitism. On board the Johan van Oldebarneveldt, one of the ships with which the Dutch were repatriated, for example, a Jewish survivor from the Japanese camps heard that it was a pity 'that Hitler could not finish his work. That not all Jews are dead'.
After the war
Jewish society in Indonesia declined rapidly after 1945. The majority of the Indonesian Jews left with the Dutch and the Dutch Indians for the Netherlands. The Baghdad Jews remained present around Surabaya for some time, but after the synagogue was razed to the ground by an angry mob in 2013 and the Jewish religion is not one of the six government-authorized religions of Indonesia, one can actually speak of the total disappearance of the Jewish Indies. However, there is still a synagogue, the last Jewish trail in the Indies, near Manado on the island of Sulawesi.
In 2014 it can be said that the situation for Jews is not positive in Indonesia. The situation around the Gaza Strip has a strong influence on Indonesian public opinion and there is hardly any objectivity in the reporting (July 2014).
Rob Snijders Historian
A documentary about Jews who lived in Indonesia, and now in Israel, can be found in the following link
You can find a scientific article about a study on anti-Semitism in India / Indonesia in the link below.
The only Jewish community still in Indonesia is in Manado. A movie about this synagogue can be found in the link below
Wikipedia - Soeratte (visited 23 July 2014)
Wikipedia - Jews in Indonesia (visited 23 July 2014)
Maas, Michiel, Last synagogue of Surabaya, NRC 19 aug 2003,
Passo Vaia, Cedric do, Jahoedie, Jews in the Dutch East Indies, workpiece Utrecht University, history subfaculty, 20 October 2007,
Jaringan Yahudi di Indonesia Sudah Ada Sejak Zaman VOC on website. Visited on July 19, 2014. Antisemitic article, translated with google translate, some data from the beginning of the article.
The island of unrest on Wikipedia (visited July 24, 2014)
Wikipedia - Pearl Harbor (visited 24 July 2014)
Camp Tangerang on japanseburgerkampen.nl (visited July 24, 2014)
August 15, 2019
Synagogue of Surabaja