A matter of land, not religion

Razing of the only synagogue in Indonesia was a land grab that had nothing to do with religion.

October 9, 2013 21:27
4 minute read.
INDONESIANS ATTEND an anti-Israel rally in 2005.

INDONESIANS ATTEND an anti-Israel rally in 2005 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Beth Shalom, the synagogue in Surabaya, Indonesia, was demolished in May of this year. This month has seen a flurry of reports in the Israeli press (e.g., Jerusalem Post, October 5), as well as Jewish-oriented blogs. The sudden interest appears to have been prompted by a three-paragraph post on indoweb.nl dated September 17. I would like to clarify the political context of this sad event and generalize to some larger lessons.

For over two decades, I have spent the bulk of each year doing business in Indonesia. I participated in High Holy Day prayer services at Beth Shalom in 1991. We had to carry one aged member of the Jewish community into the synagogue as the 10th man for a minyan. There was no Torah; the Jewish community of Singapore had received it some years earlier “for safekeeping.”

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Thus, the Surabaya community already knew its days were numbered.

The Sayers family served as caretakers of the synagogue, living in a small house on the adjacent plot of land, a short walk from a major thoroughfare that has banks, hotels and the Plaza Surabaya mall. They welcomed visitors with open arms, but were shy about media coverage.

At that time, vociferous Islamic groups were few and protests were rare. The only visible threat to the Surabaya community came from Chinese Christians whose cemetery adjoined the Jewish one. They encroached by burying people in “empty” land, thereby blocking vehicle access to the structure that had been built to prepare Jewish dead for burial.

I kept in touch with the Sayers family over the years, visiting sporadically. My last visit was a few years ago, after the January 2009 incident during which a Muslim group protesting events in Gaza removed the wooden Star of David that had been attached to the front of the synagogue building.

Rivka Sayers informed me that the leader of the protest then told the mob not to damage the building further, and they retreated back to the street. At the time of my visit, her son-in-law (a Javanese Muslim who agreed to raise his children Jewish) was supervising the construction of an iron fence to close off the front of the two parcels of land.


According to Rakyat Merdeka Online, dated May 28, the synagogue was razed to the ground on or shortly before May 25. It had been declared a protected Cultural Heritage site on April 16, 2009 (subsequent to the protest) by decree No. 646/1654/436.6.14/2009. The widely echoed statement that the protected status was “in process” is nothing more than an excuse made by the woman who currently heads the local Office of Culture and Tourism, as quoted in Surabaya Post Online, dated May 30.

Freddy Istanto, director of the Surabaya Heritage Society, was quoted in these Indonesian-language articles, as well as the English-language Jakarta Globe of June 15, as calling for an investigation. The Surabaya Post also quotes Mr. Istanto as saying that the current head of the Office of Culture and Tourism has “released” Cultural Heritage sites from protection, one by one, including a disused hospital built in 1912.

He considers it strange that the mayor has been silent with regard to the recurrent privatization, because she had been diligent about protecting Cultural Heritage sites when she herself headed the Office of Culture and Tourism before being elected mayor in 2010.

The Muslim protesters in 2009 declared that they were “sealing off” the synagogue.

In Indonesia, this idiom refers to shutting down the use of a rival house of worship – an act of intolerance that does not include razing.

The eyewitness testimony of Rivka Sayers that the mob’s own leader told them to back off is evidence that they did not plan to destroy the building.

It is unfortunate that international media are portraying the loss of the synagogue as religiously motivated by paraphrasing the “we don’t know who did it” comment made by Sachiroel Alim, who heads one of the committees of the Surabaya Legislative Council. In the Jakarta Globe article, Mr. Alim was quoted directly: “It’s not clear whether the buyer – allegedly a real estate company – destroyed the building, or if the original owner knocked it down themselves.”

In sum, this is a sad story about a land grab, where legal status means little after a site has been demolished.

Why did months go by before this tragedy made news outside Indonesia? The delay appears to be due not only to lack of awareness but also lack of credence, for at least one Israeli media source referred to the Indonesian reports as being “confirmed” by a website of their former colonial master.

Learning about remote communities of our fellow Jews is not an easy task. We count on news media to transcend prejudices and avoid distorting facts. It is our duty to keep each other informed, so that mutual support can be timely rather than coming months after a tragic event has occurred.

The author is an American Jew who spends most of each year in his wife’s hometown in Central Java.

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