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Keeping the faith, quietly: Inside Muslim Indonesia's hidden Jewish community

Sydney Morning Herald - February 7, 2022

Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies, Singapore/Jakarta – In Tondano, near the north-east tip of the island of Sulawesi, south-east Asia's first Holocaust museum was unveiled last month.

The brainchild of Rabbi Yaakov Baruch, who operates Indonesia's only synagogue in the lakeside town, its opening on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was witnessed by more than 100 invitees, among them local and district government representatives and foreign diplomats including the ambassador of Germany.

On show inside the synagogue compound so far is simply a photo exhibition, but for Baruch it is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition.

"I had a dream that one day I could open up a museum in Indonesia to educate people about the Holocaust," he said.

"Our goal is that it is not only for Jews. The message of the museum is that racism and hatred must be fought from early on before it is too late."

In the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, however, its establishment has not been welcomed by all with open arms.

The Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), a group of scholars that oversees Islamic affairs, has called for the museum to be shut.

"I beg the local government... this hurts the Palestinian people," said Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim, the head of the MUI's international relations unit.

Hidayat Nur Wahid, a senior figure in the Islamist faith-based Prosperous Justice Party and the deputy speaker of Indonesia's upper house, was also scathing. He said he believed the museum to be a ploy by Israel to try and normalise relations with Indonesia, which has long rejected diplomatic ties because of its support for the Palestinian cause.

It's an issue that has been in the headlines lately after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the prospect of establishing formal relations between Indonesia and Israel during a visit to Jakarta in December. The controversy about the photo exhibition prompted reporters to last week again pose questions to Indonesia's foreign ministry about where it stands on Israel.

Indonesia's position, though, remains unchanged. "We support the Palestinian people and we continue to work for the independence of Palestine within the two-state solution framework," foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said.

Baruch insists the exhibition in Tondano has nothing to do with conflict in the Middle East. He told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he forbids members of the synagogue displaying the Israeli flag "because it only provokes people".

"I support the [Indonesian] government's position," he said. "We are talking about faith here, we are not talking about politics."

The furore over the museum's opening, however, offers a glimpse into the life of the tiny Jewish community in a nation of 230 million Muslims.

Baruch estimates there are about 50 Indonesian Jews across the archipelago, descendants of Dutch colonialists and immigrants from Iraq, and a further 500 expatriates living in Jakarta and Bali. "It is difficult to find them because they hide their identity," he said.

Indonesia has traditionally been known for its moderate form of Islam and in Tondano as well the nearby provincial capital of Manado, which has a large Christian population, the small Jewish community is embraced and feels safe to openly display and practise their faith and mark holy days. Before the pandemic, visitors from a prominent Islamic boarding school in Gontor, East Java, even came to the synagogue twice a year to study Judaism.

Rising religious conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia, though, has given the sprinkling of Jews beyond that inclusive corner of Sulawesi extra reason to keep a low profile.

"I had a bad experience when I was in Jakarta," Baruch said, recalling an incident in the capital a decade ago. "I was with my [pregnant] wife at a mall and five big men shouted at me saying 'crazy Jew'. They said they would kill me unless I took off my kippah. They wanted to hit me but the mall security suddenly arrived and saved us, so we could get away."

When he has returned to Jakarta since, he has led religious rituals behind closed doors inside a five-star hotel for security.

Maureen Elias, a 73-year-old Jewish woman who lives on the outskirts of the Indonesian metropolis, knows all about worshipping in secret.

"We do the Sabbath by ourselves and it's just ourselves celebrating our own festive days," she said.

"We're not looking for trouble. Safety first. The most important thing is that the soul goes to heaven."

She believes it is "very sad", however, that people aren't buried according to Jewish customs as Judaism is not one of the six officially recognised religions in Indonesia.

"We can choose what [religion] to state in our ID cards, be it Islam, Christian, Hindu, whatever. But my grandma chose Christian," she said. "So, we will be buried in the Christian way as stated in our ID card. It is the norm in Indonesia."

Discrimination is deeply embedded. Research in 2014 by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-government organisation, concluded as many as 75 million Indonesians, or 48 per cent of the adult population, harboured anti-Semitic attitudes. It was a figure eclipsed in south-east Asia only in Malaysia, according to the ADL.

Mun'im Sirry, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in the US, conducted his own study in 2018 and 2019, interviewing 700 university students around Indonesia as well as 500 high school students in East Java province. Asked to rank who they disliked the most, Jews came in third behind LGBTI people and communists, he said.

"Indonesia, in the past few years, underwent certain type of radicalisation. [Anti-Semitism] is certainly a very serious problem there," Sirry said.

"But most Indonesians are not aware of the presence of a small Jewish community in the country. And they cannot even conceptualise Judaism as a religion because Judaism is not one of the officially recognised religions in the country."

Ultimately, Baruch would like the minute Jewish minority in Indonesia to be comfortable in revealing their true religious identity, arguing that concealing it was a problem in itself.

"We are trying to be ourselves, to be the way we are," he said. "I'm asking them now to have guts by wearing the kippah and by interacting in the inter-religious groups."

After decades of keeping their religious affiliation under wraps, though, it's not an approach that will be easy to persuade Indonesian Jews to take up.

"What is the benefit that people know who we are?" said Elias, the Jewish woman from Jakarta. "We have been in silence since the day of the Indonesian independence.

"It is better to be low-profile. Just study the Torah and do your Sabbath at home. I study the Koran and the Bible as well, so I can have conversations with my friends. In Judaism, we don't need to evangelise."

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/keeping-the-faith-quietly-inside-muslim-indonesia-s-hidden-jewish-community-20220203-p59tnv.htm