This photograph taken on February 17, 2017 shows a member of Indonesia’s Jewish community sweeping the steps to the synagogue ahead of a prayer service in Tondano, North Sulawesi.BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
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In Jewish-Indonesian Relations, Many Hopeful Signs

There’s no doubt that Chinese Indonesians and Jews need to be treated better by both their fellow citizens and the state, but things aren’t as grim as you may believe

Niruban Balachandran
April 19, 2018
This photograph taken on February 17, 2017 shows a member of Indonesia's Jewish community sweeping the steps to the synagogue ahead of a prayer service in Tondano, North Sulawesi.BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

I was disappointed by the headline and central argument chosen for the historian Blake Smith’s article, “Indonesians Hate the Chinese Because They Are Jewish”. I’m an American of Sri Lankan descent working in Indonesia for about six years, and am quite familiar with the country’s ethnic Chinese and Jewish communities. Unfortunately, there is a prickly thing standing in the headline’s way and that is evidence.

First, both the headline and the central argument of the article are shamefully reductive: Although Indonesia is the country with the world’s largest Muslim community, it also comprises more than 360 ethnicities, 707 languages, and dozens of religions, scattered across the archipelago’s 13,000 islands and 34 provinces, with a broad range of worldviews, belief systems, and political attitudes.

As the fourth largest population on Earth, at 260 million, one out of every 30 humans are Indonesian. Ethnic Chinese Indonesians comprise about 1 percent of the archipelago nation’s population. The Jewish-Indonesian population is comprised of mostly 200 descendants of Dutch or Iraqi Jews spread throughout the islands, and the world’s largest menorah, at 62 feet tall, is located in Manado.

To his credit, Smith adroitly provides a history of how anti-Semitism has been marshaled for centuries against ethnic Chinese Indonesians to justify horrendous atrocities and hate crimes. (For instance, my friend’s ghoulish account of how her family had to arm and barricade themselves during the May 1998 anti-Chinese purges, in which thousands were murdered, burnt to death and raped throughout Indonesia, was one of the most disturbing stories I’ve listened to.) Smith is also correct about the high degree of anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic sentiment in Indonesia. It is a nation that is growing both more liberal, and more conservative.

But amazingly, Smith provides no current measures of Indonesians’ public attitudes to support his thesis, nor a breakdown of these attitudes by subnational region or ethnolinguistic group.

If he did, he might have drawn somewhat different conclusions.

For example, the recent Indonesia National Survey Project found that when asked if it is hard to be close friends with ethnic Chinese Indonesians, 44.1 percent of Indonesians surveyed agreed, but 29.3 percent disagreed, and 30 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Similarly, when asked if it is inappropriate for pribumi (indigenous) Indonesians to inter-marry with Chinese Indonesians (arguably the greatest test of a society’s level of prejudice), 33.7 percent agreed, 35.8 percent disagreed, and 30.6 neither agreed nor disagreed. Indonesian census data is limited, but these mixed marriages with ethnic Chinese are fairly common across the country, especially in Java, West Kalimantan, and Sumatra. For instance, even I know of at least five such couples.

When asked if they are comfortable with ethnic Chinese Indonesians as political leaders, 37 percent of Indonesia’s majority Javanese population said yes, as did 60 percent of North Sumatra’s Batak population surveyed. An astonishing 100 percent of the majority-Hindu population of Bali surveyed were comfortable with the idea of ethnic Chinese Indonesian political leadership.

There are two takeaways that have important implications for the future of Jewish-Indonesian relations. For one thing, oversimplified narratives of “hate” such as Smith’s can misinform the world’s Jews and Indonesians about each other— two civilizations that are already far too misunderstood by each other (let alone by most of the world). It also strikes me as poor historical scholarship. Indonesians are not a monolith. And of course, neither are the Jewish people. Reductive, discouraging headlines that set the tone for such articles can promote defeatism and fatalism by default: If the implication is that Indonesians simply “hate” the Chinese ethnic minority, then it suggests that the country’s hearts and minds are not worth fighting for. (Note: They are.) As a result, some readers might unfortunately conclude that it is a fait accompli that Indonesians will forever be anti-Chinese (and by extension, forever anti-Semitic).

This, of course, would be an incorrect notion. It would collide with the preponderance of evidence to date that there are still opportunities for the world’s Jews and Indonesians to shatter stereotypes and exaggerated beliefs about each other. For example, my research finds there are approximately half a million Likes by Indonesian citizens on several Facebook groups that favor strengthening Indonesian-Israeli relations. Annually, between 11,000 and 15,000 Indonesians visit Israel, and recently, at least five Indonesians have written courageous, eloquent op-eds calling for diplomatic relations with Israel, here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s also worth noting that the ADL’s latest Anti-Semitism Index score for Indonesia is relatively high (48 percent), but far lower than that of most Arab societies (ranging from 74 to 93 percent), as well as its small neighbor Malaysia (61 percent), which is the most anti-Semitic country surveyed in Asia outside the Middle East. Last April, I successfully organized an interfaith dinner primarily for bringing Indonesians and Israelis together in Boston. Last November, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem organized a groundbreaking conference titled “Introducing Indonesia”. And just a few weeks ago in Sydney, a delegation of 30 Indonesian youth held discussions with Jewish leaders and visited the city’s majestic Great Synagogue. “The meeting was not open to the public,” writes Jeremy Jones of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), “but I will report that there was not a shred of hostility.”

These are all small but irrefutable signs of hope.

Secondly, the broad variance in Indonesia’s local attitudes provides an invaluable clue as to how the world’s Jews might want to strategically engage with the archipelago nation: As I argued last year, Jews should more proactively reach out to the people of Indonesia via the Internet and social media in a warm, inviting and respectful way– ideally by subnational region and ethnolinguistic group. Project Interchange, the Israel-Asia Center, Hadassah of Indonesia, and other exemplary conveners should organize more debates, exchanges, and collaborations about the Palestinian question, as well. The three Jewish-Indonesian communities here still need Torahs and sacred texts, secure houses of worship, and empowerment. And yes, more Jews and Indonesians need to learn each other’s languages, literally and figuratively. A two-state solution cannot be effectively brokered with only one of the parties.

There is unequivocally no doubt that Chinese and Jewish Indonesians need to be treated better by both their fellow citizens and the state. As the historian Margaret MacMillan wrote, “History, if it is used with care, can present us with alternatives, help us to form the questions we need to ask of the present, and warn us about what might go wrong.” We should therefore peer into the past to identify exactly when inter-ethnic rapprochements throughout world history were effective, then carefully apply the most relevant lessons to today’s diplomatic deadlocks.

If we want peace in the Middle East, then Jews and Indonesians need to talk. By facilitating this, one day we might end up surprised at how close we brought them, as well as the world, together.

Niruban Balachandran is an American working in Jakarta.

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