Home to only a tiny number of Jews, Indonesia is a hotbed of anti-Semitism. The disturbing popularity of Nazi imagery in the country came to international attention with stories of a Third Reich-themed restaurant and a museum where visitors could take selfies with Hitler. In 2016, an Indonesian artist for Marvel Comics was fired amid global outcry after his illustrations were revealed to contain hidden anti-Semitic references. But while these bizarre and ghastly expressions of anti-Semitism have shocked international opinion, they are only the most recent phase of a long history of prejudice and violence in Southeast Asia, one that links Jews and local Chinese communities, both of which are seen as dangerous minorities. This tragic common fate is a heritage of colonial rule, when anti-Semitic officials compared the Chinese of Southeast Asia to the Jews of Europe.
For Indonesia’s small Jewish population, life is precarious. Until 2013 there were two synagogues in the country, one in a relatively remote part of the island of Sulawesi, the other in Surabaya, a city on the island of Java, the heart of Indonesia’ economic and political life. Radical Islamist protestors targeted the latter with protests, threats and attacks, forcing it to shut down. As is often the case throughout the world, local Jewish communities are regularly identified as agents of, or stand-ins for, the state of Israel, which is deeply unpopular in Indonesia. Despite repeated diplomatic overtures on Israel’s part, the two countries have no official diplomatic relations.
Anti-Semitism has become part of everyday politics and culture throughout Islamic Southeast Asia, including both the majority-Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. The Malaysian government banned Schindler’s List in 1994, with one member of parliament arguing that it was Hitler, not Oskar Schindler, who was the film’s true hero. Historians like Anthony Reid find a growing number of references to “Zionist conspiracies,” backed by translations of the notorious century-old forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circulating in both Malaysian and Indonesian political circles. Textbooks used in religion classes in Indonesian schools offer hostile and reductive images of Judaism, according to the scholar of Indonesian Islam Muhamad Ali.
Yet physical intimidation of Indonesia’s Jewish communities and violent rhetoric against Jews and against Israel can only be partially explained in terms of the growth of radical Islamic movements inside the country. Indonesia’s rampant anti-Semitism is also entangled with hatred of the country’s Chinese minority, who are often compared to Jews. Journalists and scholars have made the comparison, most notably in a 1997 volume that explored the parallels between antisemitism in Europe with anti-Chinese prejudice in Southeast Asia. Such analyses reveal that, like Jews in twentieth-century Europe, Chinese communities in the region have been scapegoated as everything from communists to capitalists, and have been the victims of repeated episodes of mass violence.
Making up about one percent of the archipelago’s 260 million people, the Chinese community has been formed through centuries of immigration to the region and assimilation with local cultures. Many of their ancestors became merchants or shop-keepers in their new homes, with some families of Chinese origin becoming wealthy and powerful. Their success has fueled resentment, and governments across Southeast Asia have promoted ant-Chinese policies, such as banning the use of Chinese names and public displays of Chinese cultural events. In a paradox familiar from the history of anti-Semitism, however, such policies of forced assimilation only foster accusations that people of Chinese origin are secretly still attached to their ethnic roots and are not ‘real’ members of the national community.
Indonesian leaders themselves invoke comparisons between Chinese and Jews, although they do so in order to vilify them, attacking both groups as greedy, selfish minorities bent on controlling the world. Towards the end of his tenure, President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, began to spin conspiracy theories in which Indonesia’s Chinese minority and “international Zionism” were plotting together. These speculations contributed to violence against the Chinese. In the anarchic conditions after Suharto’s fall from power in 1998, nationalist groups blamed the Chinese for Indonesia’s political and economic problems. Chinese-owned business and homes were destroyed, over a thousand people murdered, and many victims brutalized in mass rapes.
Yet the horrific pogrom of 1998 was not unique in Indonesian history. Just as his reign ended in mass violence, so too had Suharto’s presidency begun with a campaign of collective murders of Indonesian communists and their suspected sympathizers, particularly among the Chinese minority.
In fact, the lineage of organized anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia reaches still further back to the eighteenth century, when Indonesia was part of the Dutch empire. The first pogrom of Indonesia’s Chinese community was organized by the Dutch in 1740, after economic tensions between Chinese workers and colonial soldiers spilled over into violence. The Dutch colonial government responded with the systematic killing of the Chinese population of Batavia (now Jakarta), their headquarters on the island of Java. Some 10,000 people died.
The violence of the Dutch colonial state was rooted in a widespread belief that Chinese communities of Indonesia were “like the Jews.” Applying anti-Semitic stereotypes forged in early modern Europe to the Chinese of Southeast Asia, European travelers and colonial officials of the period often remarked that the Chinese “like Jews” were “tricksters” bent on robbing both the Dutch and native people. This strategic conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Chinese prejudice was politically useful as the Dutch consolidated control of the archipelago. Crushing local powers and traditional elites that had long ruled the area, they insisted that it was not they but the Chinese who were the real foreign oppressors. The colonists, then, could pose as protectors of “true Indonesians.”
One of the most bitter critics of the Chinese, the Dutch colonial official Dirk van Hogendorp, proposed in the early 19th century that these “bloodsuckers” and “parasites,” whom he compared to “the Jews here in Europe,” should be subject to onerous taxes in order to encourage their emigration. Many echoed his sentiments. Historian Nicolaas Godfried van Kampen wrote in 1833, for example, that the Chinese were “Jews of the East,” who “thwarted and obstructed” Indonesian progress. Later in the 19th century, an association of colonial plantation owners used anti-Semitic clichés against their Chinese competitors, saying that the local Chinese were “as bad” as German Jews who exploited peasants and workers. Such views were shared by British and French officials in their own nearby colonies.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the conflation of Chinese and Jews had spread widely throughout Southeast Asia and its leaders. King Wachirawut of Siam wrote a notorious 1914 pamphlet The Jews of the Orient, in which he systematically applied anti-Semitic stereotypes to local Chinese populations. During the 1930s, as anti-colonial movements were emerging in Southeast Asia and violent anti-Semitism erupting in Europe, Indonesian nationalists condemned Chinese merchants as Jews and began to speak of violent, eliminationist solutions to the country’s “Chinese problem.” Such thinking opened the path to legislation discriminating against the Chinese minority, and to the massacres of 1965-8 and 1998.
After a two-decade lull since the 1998 riots, anti-Chinese sentiment is returning to Indonesia along with a revival of its old companion, anti-Semitism, and prejudice and discrimination are reasserting themselves. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a politician of Chinese origin, became governor of Jakarta in 2014 when the previous governor stepped down. In 2017, as a new election loomed, many nationalists voiced opposition to Purnama’s decision to seek another term. Military officials warned that the Chinese minority was becoming “arrogant,” and Islamic clerics insisted that non-Muslims should not have such powerful offices (nearly all of Indonesia’s Chinese minority are non-Muslim). Following these signals from the state and civil society, Purnama was arrested on charges of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.
With many fearing that history may soon repeat itself, the intimate entanglement of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese hatred in Indonesia’s history offers a warning about the long reach of colonial legacies and the disturbing power of anti-Semitism to shadow and sustain other hatreds.
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Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia.