Indonesia and Jews

My name is Elisheva, I am Jewish and I was born and raised in the most uncommon part of the world for Jews to live in — Indonesia, the greatest Muslim country in the world. Well, at least that is what the world thinks of her. The country is actually a republic. It just happens to have a population that is predominantly Muslim (80 percent). The government only acknowledges 5 religions and Judaism isn’t one of them.

Way before the Common Era even started, Israelis traveled to this part of the world for trading through ancient trade routes to South East Asia. I won’t be surprised if we can actually find remnants of Israel in this part of the world. In fact, recently I spoke to a Dutch pastor who regularly visits a village in West Papua who spoke a very unique dialect. “Good morning” in their language is “boker shalom” and “good night” is “laila shalom”. The Hebrew phrase for those two greetings are “boker tov” and “laila tov”. How incredible is that?

There is also a famous river going through West Papua to the eastern side of the island (Papua New Guinea) which they name “the river of Yahwe”. You can ask them what the name “Yahwe” means but villagers do not have a clue. Could it be the attempt of pronouncing the holy Tetragrammaton Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey?

Just last week, I met a Papua New Guinean lady whose family name is Sukot (tabernacle in Hebrew). There is also a clan in a remote village of West Papua (the Indonesian part of Papua) named Menorah. You can easily find these little hints in languages, names of places and surnames, that would make you wonder whether ancient Israelis have really traveled this far to our world.

During the Spanish inquisition, the Jews of Europe managed to establish trading companies which would send out ships to new worlds such as the Americas and even to the continent of Asia. These trading ships were financially backed by two Kingdoms, Holland and Britain. The leaders of the companies would put persecuted Jews and their families onto this ship with the excuse of “hiring them for trading business” in the new world and far east. And that is how they came to the Americas and the Asian world. (You can read more about this in this excellent book titled “The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean”).

My ancestors were on one of these ships. The company that were financed by the Dutch was called VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or the Dutch East Indian company. Later it became the first multinational corporation that issued stock. The first General Governor of VOC was a Dutch Jew, Jan Pieterszoon Coen (“Coen” is a Dutch variant of Cohen). When you dig deeper into history and the personalities of the leaders of VOC, you will find that the majority, if not all, were of Jewish descent. Many were hiding their identities.

One of them was Leendert Miero (1755-1834) who was born in present-day Ukraine. He was a security guard for a company estate in Europe and made one single mistake that led him to be punished by whipping. He swore that he will never be treated like that ever again and that he would work hard to become wealthy and not become somebody else’s slave ever again. He made his way to success after he joined VOC and migrated to Indonesia.

Like all other Jews that first arrived in Indonesia, Miero hid his Jewish identity. When the Dutch VOC announced that Jews were allowed to live free here in this land, Miero revealed his Jewishness to the public. He worked hard and became wealthy and had several estates in Dutch colonized city of Batavia.

Miero build himself a luxurious mansion near Batavia (now Jakarta) which the locals named “Pondok Gede”, literally means “Big House”. The area where I live today in Jakarta, Indonesia, is the area where the mansion was. Until today, the small town is called Pondok Gede because of Miero’s estate. Unfortunately, the Indonesian government did not preserve this historical building and allowed it to be torn down to build a mall on the land back in the 1980s. Strangely enough, the remaining Jews in Jakarta are mostly residing in this area, Pondok Gede. Without even realizing it or knowing the history of this area, they are attracted to settle down here and in its surrounding as if there was a magnet among us and this land.

The National Archive Building in Jakarta, Indonesia was one of Leendert Miero’s estate.

For a short time after Israel became a nation in 1948, there was an Anti-Semitic movement in Indonesia which led to the banning of Judaism as an acknowledged religion. Although it sounds so unfair to us Jews today, I believe that was the best decision that President Soekarno (at the time) made in order to stop the violence against Jews. It caused the remaining Jews to choose either Islam or Christianity and have it written in their national ID card. All of the sudden, Jews disappeared in paper and the Anti-Semitic attacks stopped.

I know now that this could have never been the case in Europe. A Jew who would give themselves to be baptized would never be accepted as a Christian or a Catholic. They would just be a baptized Jew. It was not so in Indonesia. When Judaism was denied, they “disappeared”, and they were able to live free ever since.

I thank Elohim for my forefather who took (what would have been) the frightening journey to a new and unknown world of Indonesia. He settled down in Cheribon (now Cirebon) and became a landlord of a sugar plantation there. He did what he had to do including hiding his and the family’s identity and never return to Europe or have the chance to be in Jerusalem. I have made it my mission to bring him back (after all, his blood is still running in my veins), first to the heart of his God and then to the land of his people, by bringing myself back to the two above.

Today, many remaining Jews of my generation are returning to the ancient path to the God of our forefathers. Judaism is still illegal here. However, we have lived among the people of Indonesia for so long now and become a part of their lives that they don’t ever see us as an enemy to be beheaded, rather like a member of their society and friends of their family. For that, I thank Elohim.