Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at mmryan1@gmail.com to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts about Indonesia and the Israeli-Arab conflict

One day my Indonesian friend and I chatted about life abroad and I asked her to tell me about her most "shocking" experience in the US.

Me: What was your most unexpected discovery about American culture?"

Friend: That Jewish people still existed.

Me: What?! You mean you didn't realize that Jews existed in the US?

Friend: No, I mean, before coming to University of Wisconsin I didn't realize that Jewish people existed, at all. I guess in Indonesia the education about Judaism and Jewish culture is poor.

Me: So how did you come to realize they did?

Friend: I met Jewish students at school and in my first job I worked for a company owned by Jewish people. I became fascinated with their culture because, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by them and I realized that the Jewish culture and my own Chinese Indonesian culture had commonalities.

Me: Like what?

Friend: Well, for example, that we both have overbearing mothers, haha. Also, that the Chinese and the Jews have diaspora communities all over the world and have great work ethic, often starting from nothing, to create good lives for themselves.

I had no idea that my well-educated friend, who obtained a bachelors deree from University of Wisconsin and worked in New York for four years, thought an entire culture that in fact exists, didn't. Suddenly I wanted to find out what Indonesian high school curriculums teach their students about WWII, the Holocaust or about the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. While listening to Yuyun's example about her culture shock in the US, I was in fact having a moment of culture shock myself. As an American woman who grew up in a largely Jewish town, I now live in a country where education about the Jewish people is inadequate at best. Perhaps my surprise was naive. I already knew that Indonesia didn't recognize Judaism as an official religion.

The reason I mention this story is because I'm interested in the Indonesian response to the recent raid of the flotilla. As soon as the news broke, almost a dozen of my Indonesian friends posted opinions about the conflict. Most were expressions of concern for the people involved, but a few were strongly pro-palestinian remarks, with almost violent tones. One particularly stongly-worded one went something like this: "Israel, you missed your target. Next time look in the mirror!"

I started to think about the fact that most Indonesian people probably support the Palestinans not only in this particular situation, but always. But my point is not that Indonesians should or shouldn't be pro-palestinian. What I am concerned about is the origins of their beliefs. Do most Indonesians have reasons for this support other than a shared religious faith? Is this support based on a true understanding of the facts and a subsequent independent belief, or based on a blind following of their Muslim friends and family members, without much concern for the context.

My questions might sound provocative and over-simplified. I'm sure there are a diversity of stances in Indonesia about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuanced explanations for these opinions. But given the fact that Judaism is not an official religion in Indonesia, that education about Jewish history is poor and that there is no voice for Jewish people in Indonesia, I doubt many Indonesians are exposed to the Israeli side of the conflict. The fact that Schindler's list was banned under President Soeharto illustrates the points of the prior sentence. This is upsetting to me. I am not pro-israel or pro-palestinian, but I'm a supporter of historical education about the conflict and working towards a solution that prioritizes human security over religious-right.

I don't yet have a solid understanding of the public's opinion of the conflict or religious education in Indonesia. But this is an important topic because Indonesia is involved. There were 12 Indonesians aboard the Marmara. The Indonesian government was very concerned with those passengers, and the Jakarta globe followed the state of the Indonesian passengers in a few articles:

Still No Concrete News on Indonesians Aboard Ship to Gaza
One Indonesian Injured, 11 Others Detained After Israeli Military Attack on Aid Flotilla: Government
Yudhoyono Confirms Release of 10 Indonesians Aboard Ship to Gaza

As far away from the Middle East as Indonesia seems, it's important to remember that countries like Indonesia play a role in the conflict. If there is to be any movement in the direction towards peace, leaders in the conflict and in the mediation process should take this into consideration. I would personally like to see a movement to include accurate historical education about Jewish history and the formation of Israel in Indonesian schools. The fact that Indonesians are generally uneducated about Jewish history doesn't bode well for progress.


  1. Wah! So interesting. I hope that you pursue this topic further -- I'd especially be interested to hear if you get any information about history curriculums in public school.

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  3. Meg,
    First--I REALLY MISS YOU!!!
    Second--This is interesting, and makes me think more about what my own education and background have left me ignorant about, than solely what Indonesia(ns) misunderstand(s) about Jews and Israel.