A small Holocaust museum opens in a remote Indonesian town -- and stirs a big backlash

February 15, 2022

Above: Yaakov Baruch, founder of the new Holocaust museum in the Indonesian town of Tondano, speaking to visitors.

He says he wants to honor the 6 million murdered Jews as well as specifically his own Dutch-Jewish mother's relatives, most of whom died in the camps.

 

"THE MESSAGE OF THE MUSEUM IS THAT RACISM AND HATRED MUST BE FOUGHT FROM EARLY ON BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE"

[Note by Tom Gross]

Yaakov Baruch opened the first Holocaust museum in Indonesia two weeks ago, on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Over 100 dignitaries attended, among them local and district government representatives and foreign diplomats including the German ambassador.

"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," Baruch, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, says.

But now the Indonesia Ulema Council, a group of scholars that oversees Islamic affairs in the world's most populous Muslim country, has called for the museum to be shut, as has Hidayat Nur Wahid, a vice-speaker of Indonesia's national legislature.

I attach two articles, from The Wall Street Journal, and from The Sydney Morning Herald.

 

ARTICLES

A SMALL HOLOCAUST MUSEUM SPRINGS UP IN A REMOTE TOWN -- AND STIRS A BIG BACKLASH

A Small Holocaust Museum Springs Up in a Remote Town -- and Stirs a Big Backlash
The newly opened space on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is opposed by Muslim clerics and politicians
The Wall Street Journal
February 12, 2022

https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-small-holocaust-museum-springs-up-in-a-remote-townand-stirs-a-big-backlash-11644677414

When Yaakov Baruch, a member of majority-Muslim Indonesia's tiny Jewish community, set out to build a Holocaust museum in his country, he wanted it to stand as a symbol against genocide and bigotry. He reached out to Yad Vashem, the main Holocaust museum in Israel, for images and other exhibition material illustrating Nazi horrors against European Jews. Late last month, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he hosted an opening ceremony that was attended by the German ambassador to Indonesia.

The museum -- a modest single-story structure in the lakeside town of Tondano on Indonesia's Sulawesi island -- now faces calls for its closure.

A number of Muslim clerics and Islamist politicians have argued it has no place in Indonesia, which, like many predominantly Muslim nations, doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel. By focusing on historical wrongs against Jews, they say, it distracts from Israel's present-day treatment of Palestinians.

A major Indonesian television network, tvOne, hosted a 90-minute prime-time debate this past week titled, "Fuss Over the Jewish Museum." The program featured conservative Muslim figures, one of whom used dehumanizing and inflammatory language and called the Holocaust a giant hoax. Mr. Baruch, also on the program, pushed back.

Mr. Baruch says the museum has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other political debates. In a white-walled hall inside, posters document the rise of anti-Semitism in the early 20th century and the stories of some of the six million Jews who were killed.

He was motivated to build the museum, he said, in part by his own family history. An Indonesian raised in a secular home, he learned of his heritage as a teenager from his mother's aunt, a Dutch Jew who had moved to Indonesia with her family before World War II. Much of his family's Dutch-Jewish side was killed during the Holocaust, relatives told him.

"When she told me I was surprised. I almost didn't believe her," said Mr. Baruch, now 39 years old.

He changed his name to his current Hebrew one and began studying Judaism, which over many years took him to Singapore, Israel and Brooklyn, N.Y. In 2004, he opened a small synagogue in Tondano, where he leads prayer in consultation with a New York-based rabbi.

Tondano is roughly an hour's drive from the religiously diverse port city of Manado, where Mr. Baruch spent part of his childhood. About 30 Jews live in the area, some of them converts, he said. He said he and others in the Jewish community decided to build the synagogue in majority-Christian Tondano, where his family owned a parcel of land. The town's relative isolation helped keep the synagogue safe, he said.

The U.S. supports efforts by Muslim countries to establish formal ties with Israel, including, recently, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Teuku Faizasyah, an Indonesian foreign-ministry spokesman, said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue during a December visit to the country. Mr. Faizasyah said Indonesia's government responded by highlighting the country's longstanding support for Palestinians and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Michael Quinlan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, said he couldn't provide details on a private diplomatic conversation. He said the U.S. welcomes the normalization of relations between Muslim countries and Israel, though, he said, that isn't a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

A 2021 poll of 1,200 Indonesians found more than 80% aware of the conflict, with 71% of those who are aware placing blame on Israel.

In the days after the Holocaust museum's Jan. 27 opening, senior clerics with Majelis Ulama Indonesia, an influential clerical body, gave interviews to local television networks criticizing the project. Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim, who heads the organization's international-relations division, said although he condemns the Holocaust, the situation in the Middle East means the timing isn't right for a museum covering it.

Hidayat Nur Wahid, a vice-speaker of Indonesia's national legislature, called on local political leaders to reject the museum, saying it could be part of a campaign for normalizing ties with Israel, and could be used by Israel as a propaganda tool.

"I was shocked this became viral and received such strong disapproval," said Mr. Baruch. Still, he said, he was heartened by the support he had since received from members of the local community in Manado, including some Muslims.

"I'm not going to step back just because of pressure from intolerant groups," he said.

 

KEEPING THE FAITH, QUIETLY: INSIDE MUSLIM INDONESIA'S HIDDEN JEWISH COMMUNITY

Keeping the faith, quietly: Inside Muslim Indonesia's hidden Jewish community
By Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies
The Sydney Morning Herald
February 7, 2022

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

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.

"Most Indonesian are not aware of the presence of a small Jewish community in the country"

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."

 

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