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An obscure history

An obscure history
Published: Jun 20, 2011

Jews have been in Indonesia for a very long time, probably since well before the European expansion into Southeast Asia

Rotem Kowner

   A bar mitzvah ceremony in pre-war Surabaya at the home of the Mussry
   family, attended by European and Baghdadi Jews
   Eli Dwek

Although there is no trace of an ancient Jewish community in the Indonesian archipelago, it is possible that Jews arrived in Sumatra and Java as individuals – traders and mariners from the Indian subcontinent or Arabia – before the advent of European colonialism. Indonesia’s naval and commercial contacts with India began several centuries before the Common Era (CE) and Jews had inhabited the Indian subcontinent since the sixth century, many of them working as traders in ports like Cochin and Calicut.

The first time the presence of a Jew living in the Indonesian archipelago was confirmed in a written text was in the late Middle Ages. This person was a merchant from Fustat in Egypt, who died in the port of Barus, Northwest Sumatra in 1290. People of Jewish descent may have also arrived in the region with the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century. Jews had fled to Portugal after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, only to be expelled from Portugal four years later. In 1511, a Portuguese force under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque took over the city port of Malacca and paved the way for Lusitanian expansion in Southeast Asia. Two years later, four Portuguese ships arrived in Jakarta for the first time. Jews did not take an overt part in this expansion after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. But Jewish converts to Christianity and some non-Iberian Jews were involved in many of the exploratory voyages of the period, including those led by Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Álvares Cabral.

While many of the Portuguese Jewish converts to Christianity lived in Goa, a local Inquisition forced them to move out of the Portuguese colony and to occasionally migrate to Southeast Asia. Even though they did not form any kind of significant community, it is highly possible that a number lived around the Straits of Malacca and the northern coasts of Sumatra and Java. But the prospect for a genuine community of converts in the Indies diminished substantially after 1565 when the Portuguese court prohibited Jews from sojourning in their settlements and instituted a more intense scrutiny of converts by the Inquisition.

A new empire

The Portuguese mercantile empire in this region did not last for very long and even their primary port, Malacca, fell in 1641. Their place was gradually taken by another mercantile empire, this time from North Europe. The Dutch began to show interest in the region in the final years of the sixteenth century and by 1619 had taken Jakarta from the Portuguese and renamed it Batavia. The spearhead of the Dutch expansion was the Dutch East India Company (VOC), established in 1602. Together with its sister company, the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC), the VOC formed a large maritime empire and a base for future Dutch colonialism.

Employing many non-Dutch and even non-Christians, both companies were the first global and multinational enterprises. But the eastern branch did not have a place for Jews. Moreover, the VOC prohibited Jews from travelling to its holdings, especially its new headquarters in Batavia, under the pretext that it could not provide for their religious requirements.

Notwithstanding this initial rejection, there are accounts of Jews who succeeded in concealing their identity in Dutch East Indies as early as the eighteenth century. Their identity was revealed, apparently, when they called upon the local priests and asked for conversion to Christianity. One such impostor was Leendert Miero (1755-1834), who was born in present-day Ukraine. Lendeert arrived at the Indies as a soldier in 1775 and became the wealthy owner of a large estate at Pondok Gede near Batavia. Miero was able to reveal his identity when the VOC agreed to include Jews in its ranks in 1782.

Still an enormous operation, the company was by then approaching the end of a long decline. The new Batavian Republic nationalised the company fourteen years later and, although its charter was renewed several times, it eventually expired in 1800. It was only after this time that the Dutch began to control larger and larger parts of the archipelago, attaining full control only at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first post-VOC account of Jewish presence in the Dutch East Indies appeared as late as the 1860s. It author was Jacob Saphir (1822-1886), who visited the archipelago for seven weeks on his way to Australia in 1861. A Jewish emissary and traveller of Romanian descent, Saphir reported the existence of Jews in Batavia, Surabaya and Semarang, but found no trace of Jewish communal life. He reported that there were at least twenty Jewish households in Batavia, all of whom were of European descent, mainly from the Netherlands and Germany. They comprised wealthy merchants, government officials and soldiers in the service of the colonial regime, who mostly married Dutch or local women. They had no synagogue and no cemetery, nor did they have a teacher, cantor, slaughterer or circumciser. In fact, many of them, Saphir reported, were ashamed of their Jewish origins.

Saphir did not notice any of the Baghdadi Jews who were beginning to arrive in Java at the time via Singapore, but he was correct about the absence of Jewish communal life in the Dutch East Indies. It was hardly a secret. The Jewish community in the Netherlands had been trying (unsuccessfully) to provide a rudimentary religious framework for Jews in the colony since the 1850s. Seventy years later, the situation was little different. When the Zionist fundraiser Israel Cohen arrived in Java for a five-day visit in 1921, he learned that several hundred Jews, ‘perhaps as many as 2000’, were living in Java alone. Yet, numbers mattered very little to him. Despite the presence of many Jews, he lamented, ‘There was no Jewish life in the communal sense, mixed marriages were frequent, and the only form of association consisted of a few struggling Zionist societies.’

The fact that no genuine community emerged in even late-nineteenth-century Indonesia is hardly surprising. In this period the European colonies were a convenient place for Jews wishing to assimilate. Far from the anti-Semitism of Europe, colonial authorities tended to regard Jews as ordinary Europeans while focusing their discriminatory policies on the indigenous population. In 1870, for example, some 100,000 Algerian Jews became French, doubling the French population of the colony. They were far less welcome in France at the time. In the Netherlands, the Jewish community faced no substantial persecution. But the conservative attitude of its members and the limited number of professions available to them drove quite a few to the colonies in search of a less inhibited lifestyle, far from the prying eyes of their community.

However, even among the Jewish communities in the Dutch colonies, the Jews in Indonesia were unique. In the West Dutch West Indies (modern day Suriname), there was a relatively cohesive community that preserved a fully Jewish lifestyle and tradition. The difference between the East and West Dutch Indies is intriguing, given that the two communities were quite similar in size. The main differences between them appear to stem from their demographic and social structure. The Jewish community in Suriname was about a third of the entire European population, while in the Dutch East Indies the Jews comprised a tiny part of the European community. Moreover, the Jews in Suriname lived in far greater density and relative proximity. Living more than 2500 kilometres apart, Jews in Padang and Manado, for instance, faced great difficulties in maintaining contact. Finally, until the late nineteenth century, at least, the Jews of Suriname were relatively affluent, a fact that enabled them to sustain communal life and hire professionals to carry out religious functions. For all these reasons and more, the Surinamese community stood a better chance of sustaining religious organisations and communal life and a lower risk of assimilation.

The last official census conducted by colonial authorities in the Dutch East Indies in 1930 reported the presence of 1095 Jews concentrated in the large urban centres, chiefly Batavia, Surabaya and Bandung. The comprehensiveness of the census is doubtful. As Cohen had noted several years earlier, most Jews ‘concealed or denied their Jewish origins’. The real size of the Jewish population at the time was possibly double the official estimate, and probably exceeded 2500 in the late 1930s. Several features are evident if we regard this census as at least a representative sample of the Jews in the colony. Firstly, the majority of the Jews lived in Java (more than 85 per cent), some in Sumatra (11 per cent), and only a few in other parts of the archipelago (less than 4 per cent). Secondly, the sex ratio among the Jews was unique, for a remote colony in the tropics, as no less than 41 per cent were women.

An emerging community

The Jewish community was particularly active in the 1920s and established the Association for Jewish Interests in the Dutch East Indies and a number of other Jewish organisations. A monthly magazine called Erets Israel was issued in Padang from 1926 until its closure by the Japanese in 1942.

This rapid growth in community identity and the number of Jewish at this time is explained at least in part because of the rise of Zionism and growing anti-Semitism among the Dutch. Although there were sharp divisions in attitudes towards Zionism within the Jewish community, a number of Jews residing in Surabaya and Padang established the Dutch Indies Zionist Association in 1926. Two years later, the central fundraising organisation for Zionist settlement in Israel established at the World Zionist Conference in London in 1920, began to operate in the colony. Based in Surabaya, the fund soon extended its activity throughout the archipelago, opening additional branches in virtually every major city inhabited by Jews, including Batavia, Bandung, Malang, Medan, Padang, Semarang and Yogyakarta.

Indonesia’s Jewish community was certainly not pious. Many of the Baghdadi Jews maintained a religious life but few could be considered fully orthodox. Some Dutch Jews kept Jewish traditions but most tended to assimilate. More than a few hid any overt sign of their Jewishness and some men married Christian Europeans or native women. Economically speaking, many members of the community enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. In the pre-war years many of them resided in large houses full of fine furniture. Some owned cars and they usually employed native maids, cooks and chauffeurs. In their memoirs they recall a tropical paradise. In reality, however, it was unexceptional in a Southeast Asian colony, where exploitation and inequality were the name of the game. In 1929, the annual per capita income for a native Indonesian was 78 guilders. For Europeans (including Eurasians) it was no less than 4017 guilders.

Despite internal differences, then, the Jewish community in the Dutch East Indies was well served by the ruling power's economic structures and in support of its colonial policies. Some occasional ‘anti-Semitic pinpricks’ notwithstanding, members of the community were integrated in the social life of the colonial elite. Evidently a few Jewish men did marry local women, but for most of the community contacts with the locals occurred primarily in their role of employer to maids, cooks and drivers. This was an assimilated community that only began to maintain a certain communal, and even religious, structure in the early twentieth century.

The coming of the war

On the eve of World War II the majority of Indonesian Jews were Dutch citizens, many of them employed by the colonial administration as clerks, soldiers, teachers and medical doctors. There were also relatively large numbers of merchants. A second group was of so-called Baghdadi origin, which meant they were from Iraq, Aden and other parts of the Middle East. The Baghdadi Jews lived primarily in Surabaya. There the community consisted of several hundreds of people, and engaged in trade, as owners of import and export businesses (including drug trafficking in some cases), shopkeepers, peddlers and artisans. The third group was refugees from Nazi persecution, largely from Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe. They had arrived a few years earlier, usually as a result of family ties or certificates provided by benevolent Dutch consuls. There are divergent views concerning the level of contact between these three groups.

What is clear, though, is that the number of Jews in the colony was still growing shortly before and even after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, as hundreds of refugees from the Netherlands, Germany and Eastern Europe fled to the Indies. This sudden demographic increase notwithstanding, the Jewish community remained negligible in both in size and political importance. On the eve of the Pacific War (1941-45), there would have been nearly three thousand Jews in Indonesia. However, its membership only constituted about two per cent of the Jewish community of the Netherlands (about 160,000 in 1939), and their relative share of the colony's population was even smaller. They accounted for a little less than one per cent of the approximately 360,000 Europeans and Eurasians in the Indies, who, in turn, accounted for about half a per cent of the entire population, about 68 million at the time.

Despite refugees’ knowledge of the threat to Jews in Europe, nothing could prepare them for their first encounter with soldiers and officials of the Japanese Empire – a nation of little significance to the Indies before 1942 – let alone for the hardships they would face in the following three years. As we now know, this lack of preparedness was to have a crucial impact on the capacity of the community to endure its ordeal and eventually to survive.

Rotem Kowner (kowner@research.haifa.ac.il) is Professor of Japanese modern history and culture at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Haifa, Israel.

This article is part of the Indonesia's Jews series.

Inside Indonesia 104: Apr-Jun 2011

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