Translations of Antisemitism: The History of Jews and Violence in Indonesia

Jeffrey Hadler, Anthropology

Research Grant, 1999

I conceived my research project in May, 1998, in the aftermath of the fall of President Soeharto in Indonesia. That month saw horrendous violence committed against the Chinese community in Jakarta—torture, rape, and murder. The dehumanizing rhetoric that accompanied this violence reminded me of European antisemitic discourse of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries: describing a people who were urban, parasitic, exploitative, and antinationalistic, who participated in occult and deviant dietary and sexual rituals.

Scholars have assumed that Indonesian antisemitism is a case of “antisemitism without Jews”; that current anti-Jewish rhetoric is borrowed from Middle Eastern anti-Zionist propaganda. This viewpoint is limited. In my research I analyze the history and role of the Jewish community during the period of Dutch colonialism in the East Indies. I assess the position of both Dutch and so-called “oriental” or “Baghdadi” Jews in the economic and social life of the colony, discussing the role of Zionism and imperial antisemitism, and paying particular attention to the interactions of the Jews and the Indonesians. I scrutinize the antisemitic rhetoric of the Vaderlandsche Club, an Indies racist organization that channeled funds to and was eventually superseded in the 1930s by the Dutch Nazi Party, and I analyze the particular antisemitism cultivated by the Axis during the Japanese occupation.

In post-Soeharto Indonesia, there has been a curious revival of antisemitism, an effort to equate political "reformasi" and Zionism.

Indonesian colonial Jewry cut across official colonial categories, with Dutch, Arab, Chinese, and even “native” congregants. The community maintained a Zionist newspaper, “Erets Israel,” that was published from 1926 until the Japanese occupation. Jews met in the one synagogue in Surabaya and held services in Masonic Lodges and Theosophical Halls (two other groups reviled by conspiracy theorists today). In post-Soeharto Indonesia, there has been a curious revival of antisemitism, an effort to equate political “reformasi” and Zionism. The Surabaya synagogue has drawn the attention of Australian Lubavitchers and is now a sort of Jewish mission field. My research consisted then of two related projects. On one hand I undertook archival research into the history of the Jewish community in colonial Indonesia. The results of this research have been presented at conferences and are the subject of a forthcoming article.

My second project was more ethnographic and is ongoing—a study of the small community of Indonesian Jews in Jakarta and Surabaya and their relationship to both an Indonesian state that does not recognize Judaism as a religion and to a community of Muslim neighbors who are increasingly angry with Israel, the United States, and the perceived role of international Zionists in destabilizing Indonesia and the Islamic world. Furthermore I speculate about whether the ideological justifications for current anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia were not maintained throughout the New Order in easily translated antisemitism. If the violence of the late 1960s was hung on an anticommunist reed, then the racist rhetoric of 1998 echoed with antisemitism. Chinese are depicted as antinationalists, practitioners of native labor abuse and then reflexive capital flight. Such shadowy “conglomerates” and peripatetic urban exploiters are as Jewish as they are Chinese stereotypes. Of course Southeast Asians have a much longer experience of Chinese contact than they do Jewish interaction. However, in the face of state-sanctioned silence when it came to discussions of the Chinese, it is plausible that anti-Chinese rhetoric migrated towards antisemitism in the Soeharto era. This second project, since it involves a living and potentially threatened community, is far more difficult to publicize.

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