Java’s Last Synagogue Torn Down

By Camelia Pasandaran on 05:50 pm Jun 15, 2013
Category News
A view of the synagogue from outside. (JG Photo/Christyandi Tri Syandi)

A view of the synagogue in Surabaya before it was demolished. (JG Photo/Christyandi Tri Syandi)

The last vestige of one Indonesia’s oldest and largest Jewish communities is now just a pile of rubble.

Beth Shalom in Surabaya — Java’s one and only synagogue — was demolished in May after being sealed off by Islamic hard-liners in 2009.

“It’s not clear when exactly it was demolished and who did it,” Freddy Istanto, the director of the Surabaya Heritage Society (SHS), told the Jakarta Globe.

“In mid-May, I was informed by a member of the SHS that the synagogue was destroyed. In disbelief, I went over there and it had been flattened.”

Freddy reported the case to the Surabaya Legislative Council and prompted the commission to summon the Surabaya Tourism Agency, which was responsible for the heritage building.

“It was designated a heritage site by the agency on April 16, 2009. It should’ve been protected,” Freddy said.

A small, Dutch-style building located on a 2,000 square meter plot of land in the middle of Surabaya’s business district, Beth Shalom looked like an ordinary house in the neighborhood. The only features that distinguished it as a synagogue were its mezuzah (Torah scrolls fastened to an entrance way) and the two Star of David carvings on its door.

“There were many artifacts inside the building which can’t be found in other heritage sites,” Freddy said.

Sachiroel Alim, one of the heads of the Surabaya Legislative Council, told the Jakarta Globe on Saturday that the council summoned the Surabaya Tourism Agency at the end of May and gave them seven days to officially report the case to the police since the demolition was in direct violation of the Law on Cultural Heritage.

“There was an indication that the owner of the synagogue had sold the building,” Sachiroel said. “It’s not clear whether the buyer — allegedly a real estate company — destroyed the building, or if the original owner knocked it down themselves,”

Sachiroel said that he did not know if Muslim hard-liners had anything to with razing the synagogue.

“We don’t want to get into the conflict, but a heritage building should be protected by the government,” Sachiroel said.

In January 2009, Muslim demonstrators sealed off Beth Shalom and burned an Israeli flag to protest the country’s attacks on the Gaza Strip at the time.

Soemarsono, the head of the National Unity and Society Protection Agency of Surabaya, claimed that the synagogue was an illegal structure because it did not possess proper building permits.

“It was used as a residence,” Rakyat Merdeka Online quoted him as saying recently.

Sachiroel noted, though, that most of Indonesia’s oldest buildings don’t have building permits since such a requirement was only introduced during the Suharto era.

“The synagogue was built before Indonesia declared its independence,” he said. “How could it have a building permit?”

Rivka Sayers, a Jewish woman of Iraqi descent, reportedly lived in the synagogue’s compound since 1970.

She said that only three families regularly visited the synagogue to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Indonesia’s last surviving synagogue is located in Manado, Sulawesi.

  • H. Tobing

    I wonder if the rabbi in New York approved this?

  • Roland

    …one can just shake the head in disbelief…but I bet my hat that in the end (if there will be one with some clarifications) it was ALL just about money – including the initial sealing of the synagogue and now the demolishing even though the building was declared a historical site.

    2,000 square metres of land in a large city do generally represent quite a financial value and whoever the owner is knows well that he will never be charged with any crime, as the general attitude for old buildings which represent a historical value is very bad.

    But nevertheless, if one of these days a group of men in skullcaps can be seen “cleansing” the site with some rituals then one knows who the culprits have been.

    BTW – what a joke regarding this building permit! Always the same shallow excuses for destruction and interference.

  • 22roles

    Stupid really stupid. Tourism n hertige guys should be sued n dump them in jail.

  • MadWorld

    Taliban style demoCRAZY.

  • TGIF

    Valuable heritage places regardless of its religious and historical significances are being destroyed by modern age humans. It is downright appalling. I doubt very much that it is an initiative from god. When will educated and non educated people regardless of political views have that “je ne sais quoi” to respect each other and properties. Obviously it wasn’t taught in an religious upbringing. It would be such as shame should religious zealots may be trying to erase history. Nonetheless, no one hasn’t come forward in regards to the demolition of the synagogue. It is no surprise that taking a responsible attitude and admitting faults for an action is not a common practice. However there are people out there who would be responsible for his or her action.

    In the desert like environment, tribal and nomads communities pitch tents wherever they would migrate in the old past. But in some other places in the world, buildings and ancient religion with places of worship have been in existence before the three monotheistic religions began to practice in the desert like environment. Further down the centuries, the monotheistic religions spread and visible places of worship were built. Therefore erasing history is impossible no matter where one would come from.

  • Tatanka

    I hope some people will take pictures of the remnants and send them to the ACF rabbi who handed the award to SBY.

  • Michel Favard

    Religious intolerance? Historical brainwashing?

    • Pelan2

      Michel – brainwashing require a brain – sorry, you are in the wrong place..

  • Deddy K.

    Why? just a curious question. Why are radical muslims so afraid of everything? If your faith is so strong, all supposed evils (which they believe is everything on the planet that doesn’t pertain to islam) and temptations (although as shown by PKS and FPI they are willing to try everything from reading porn to having a busload of mistresses to corruption and thuggery) then the truth is you should be able to ignore it.
    Live and let live. But there is so much conflict caused by Islam. how come?

    • Search4Truth

      They are deathly afraid of only ONE thing: ALAH. If they don’t do as ALAH says, (and at the same time FORCE everyone else to do the same thing) they won’t get to heaven to enjoy their virgins (sex), their feasting (gluttony), and drinking (drunkenness) without any kind of guilt. In other words: F..K everybody’s lives on Earth, so they can have fun later on, in their own sick, perverted version of a heaven.

  • Hooswho

    Perhaps the owners could erect a giant replica of SBY’s award on the site as a tribute to religious harmony

    Rabbi Arthur Scheneier could come cut the ribbon and do the blessing and afterwards hardline FPI members could beat him to death with bamboo canes thereby showing the world Indonesia’s tolerance to only one religion

    • Muffinman

      They could move the last stage of the non-bikini clad Miss World Pageant there instead of Jakarta. The girls could dance around the bamboo poles.

  • Fransisko Lojaya


  • VISP

    but you know it wont happen VI

  • Durant

    “There was an indication that the owner of the synagogue had sold the building,” Sachiroel said. “It’s not clear whether the buyer — allegedly a real estate company — destroyed the building, or if the original owner knocked it down themselves,”

    There is a possibility -a huge one- that this demolition is more likely a heritage issue -in this case, defeated by greed- rather than religious one.

    But I bet those hard-liners will also rejoice.

  • Tatanka

    No building permit:

    When was the permitting issue instituted and when was the synagogue erected?

    It was used for residence:

    The property owner has the right to use it for whatever the owner sees fit, as long as within the legal limit (not turning it into a whore house). It is nobody’s business to even raise this issue. If any activities deemed to need permitting it is between the property owner and the local police station.

    Don’t want to get into a conflict but the preservation should be done by the government: Yes and No. Yes, the government should care and protect under the law. No, because in a democratic society we cannot always ask the government to be our babysitter. In Indonesia it is very apparent the government is acting like castrated bunch since inside the government there are elements pushing for radical islam to spread its wings to fortify their own position in the government. Case in point is PKS. While claiming to represent Islam the organization was headed by a baby rapist (having sexual relationship with underage girls) and at the same time corrupting money from beef import like there is no tomorrow.

    At times changes can happen peacefully and this is what most people wish. However, there are times opposition and fighting back must be done. It is a matter on how it is done. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated non-violence while Malcolm X would not walk away without a fight. Mahatma Gandhi advocated non-violence while the fight against the Nazi was violence involving world war. Walking away from confrontation does not always produce the best results, especially when dealing with irrational, illogical, narrow-minded nincompoops like radical muslims and muslims thugs. The sad part whenever Islam is criticized some self-proclaimed good muslims will complain and feel hurt while in reality the self-proclaimed muslims hardly raise a finger when non-muslims are being trampled. I wonder when the self-proclaimed good muslims will wake up and realize that their own religion has been tainted and smeared with shit by the radicals, thugs and terrorists.

    I would say as human being and in the name of human decency, everyone must take responsibility for his/her action as well as his/her inaction. Borrowing the phrase from Edmund Burke: evil can only triumph when good people see injustice and decide to do nothing. In short, there are times confrontation cannot be avoided. Don’t always linger in self-pity and ask others to fight for you when you yourself are not willing to fight because it means you are nothing but a yellow-belly coward!

    A nation who cannot appreciate history is a lost nation! SBY received the award handed to him by a Jewish Rabbi. Please do take a bunch of pictures and send them to the Rabbi and ask him how he can sleep at night after shaking hands with SBY and handing the award to him. Bring it to the international spotlight! The tools are all there and the media is quite savvy nowadays that with little efforts this thing can be accomplished.

    The more I watch Indonesia and the longer I stay in Indonesia, it is burning inside of me to see injustices being done on a daily basis and the government is acting like there is nothing wrong with it. Then more and more I feel that the government is not ignorant, rather it is actually tacitly endorsing the practice of injustice.

    Any injustice done to the least of us is OUR business!!!

    Ahmadiyah mosques being attacked, Shiite muslims being attacked, Christians being attacked, certain ethnicities being attacked … the government is mute! It would make sense for those oppressed to UNITE and fight back together against intolerance and injustice. The question is WHEN? Ones cannot ask by whom since it has to start with each and everyone of those oppressed. It is utterly ridiculous for the oppressed Indonesians to ask for help from foreigners, to complain to foreigners and even worse to ask foreigners to do the fighting for them while they themselves are not willing to fight.

    Next time there is an issue of the house of worship not possessing a permit, ask back how many mosques that actually have the proper permit. Who gives them the permit to erect tall towers with speakers blaring away at ungodly hours? Who gives them the permit to disturb their neighbors? Who gives them the permit to trample the rights of nearby property owners from private enjoyment of their dwellings? Who gives them the right to scream and shout toward nearby hospitals, schools, offices, etc. Pray if you want but please do not disturb others. If the muslims truly believe their god is great, then I am sure their god should be almighty to hear their prayers without them shouting and screaming. In fact, not having the appropriate permit is an issue for the government who should take a firm stand against the radicals and thugs that it is the government’s issue and no one or no party should mess with that. Yet, it is far from the reality because the government is tacitly endorsing the behavior and conduct of the radicals and the thugs. Even decisions from the Indonesian supreme court have been ignored and the government is not doing anything. What can the oppressed expect from this government? They can expect a BIG FAT ZERO!!!

    There is contradiction in the article. In one sentence it said the synagogue was demolished by some radicals while in another sentence it said it was not sure who did it. Is this Javanese style or Indonesian style to say something while the reality is different. Call it as it is. If it is gold then say it, if it is shit then say it too. Why hide the fact that the radicals have done it? Where was the police when that happened? It burns me inside to learn a synagogue erected before Indonesian independence has been demolished. One does not have to be Jewish to get angry. The nation’s history should belong to ALL and for ALL to be proud of. I implore the local government there and the good Indonesian people to re-build the synagogue and set up a bank account to finance it. I know I will be one of the first to transfer money for the rebuilding effort!

  • Fanelli

    Has anyone mentioned that Borobudur doesn’t have a building permit?

    • Tatanka

      Good point. Prambanan also does not have a building permit. I wonder if the Presidential Palace was built with a building permit? Why not Monas too?

  • Tatanka

    To the contrary, respect for others is taught in religion. Even loving one another is also taught. Most religions that is. However, it might have been missed in the education for many Indonesian Sunnis. Or perhaps it is taught but the followers could not hear because they were screaming themselves or to busy looking for victims to whip with bamboo poles or most likely looking to get money from events through intimidation.

    • Valkyrie1604

      The lessons were primarily conveyed in Arabic. How many local Muslims understand this language?

      Funny thing about animals, especially the canine family. Owners are made up of various nationalities but this animal is able to understand what is taught by its’ master. My German Shepherd does not understand Arabic.

  • Podfunk

    Just like the Taliban and the Bamiyan Buddha.

  • T van der Linden

    I hope the people who destroyed the building are made to rebuild it in exactly the same formats by the conservationcouncil of Surabaya

  • Jakartass

    The late David Jardine wrote this article for Tempo – – about a visit to the synagogue in 2006.
    “Is this the synagogue?” I asked.

    Affirmative. I explained that I was in fact a Gentile, a non-Jew but that I was interested in meeting the faithful and in seeing Indonesia’s last remaining synagogue. Chana was most welcoming and after a little while asked if I would care to join them that evening in celebrating the Passover, the major Jewish festival. I felt most honored.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    The tree is known by its fruit.

  • ColonelNeville

    Mark Steyn on how Islam destroys everyone’s past but Islam. No, really. Colonel Neville.

    • TalkingEid

      Actually, they often destroy their own, too, Colonel. Take a look at what’s been happening in Mecca and Mali.

  • MadWorld

    Dear Inspector.
    Any ideas the name of the trees that bears radicals rotten fruits?