It was perhaps the worst possible time for officials in Surabaya to host students from two US universities hoping to learn about pluralism and democracy.
Hours after the six students from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan arrived on Friday evening, local media reported that one of Indonesia’s last remaining vestiges of its Jewish community had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
Beth Shalom in Surabaya, Java’s only synagogue, was demolished in May after being sealed off by Islamic hard-liners since 2009.
“I’m afraid there’s no right time to come to Indonesia to learn about pluralism because you can find bad examples of intolerant acts almost every day here,” Hendardi, the executive director of Setara Institute, a nongovernmental organization promoting tolerance and pluralism, said on Sunday.
Freddy Istanto, the director of the Surabaya Heritage Society (SHS), told the Jakarta Globe on Saturday that the synagogue had been destroyed, and it was uncertain when it was demolished and who did it.
“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 City Council and prompted the commission to summon the Surabaya Tourism Agency, which was responsible for the heritage building,” Freddy said.
“It was designated as a heritage site by the agency on April 16, 2009. It should have been protected.”
Indonesia’s last surviving synagogue is located in Manado, North Sulawesi.
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 in the building that can’t be found anywhere else,” Freddy said.
Sachiroel Alim, a City Council deputy speaker, told the 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 because the demolition was in direct violation of the Law on Cultural Heritage.
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.
“How can foreign students learn about living in harmony if the mind-set of officials and some people continue to be like this, while the government allows these groups to take the law into their own hands?” Hendardi said.
However, lecturers at Airlangga University in Surabaya said the US students still learned one or two things about pluralism from the city.
“They learned about how the residents form a pluralist and democratic community,” said Diah Ariani Arimbi, dean of the university’s School of Literature.
The students, in the country under the US-Indonesia Partnership Program for Study Abroad Capacity (USIPP), have been in East Java since Tuesday, and Surabaya was their last destination. They visited several Islamic boarding schools, mosques and churches while they were in the province.