Sunday, June 13, 2010

To Play a Role in Middle East Peace, Indonesia Must First Talk to Israel

Although Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, the nation plays a dominant role in the current psyche of our country. Israel features in our minds not only when atrocities occur like the recent attack on the aid ship Mavi Marmara or further back when Israel pulverized Gaza with its military might and left more than a thousand civilians dead. Israel is regularly mentioned in Friday sermons in mosques all over the country as a monster of terrifying intelligence that threatens our lives from all sides. In lower quality bookstores there are plenty of conspiracy-theory books written by Islamists explaining how Israel dominates the world and is bent on destroying Islam.

In a demonstration in Solo against the recent flotilla aid attack, among the posters condemning Israel were many demanding the banning of the charity groups Lions Club International and Rotary International — two organizations regularly singled out by conspiracy theorists here as being covert Israeli operations designed to weaken Indonesia and Islam. The two clubs are always depicted as being fronts for the Freemasons, depicted here as a sinister Jewish organization formed to rule the world from behind the scenes, even though the Freemasons originated in Scotland and is a charitable organization open to anyone willing to express a belief in god, although candidates are never required to say in which particular god they believe.

Under Sukarno’s rule, through Islamist pressure, the Freemasons were banned in Indonesia. Historians note that during the Dutch colonial times there were a few Jewish communities here, and currently there is still a tiny community in Surabaya. So why, with so little contact between Jewish in Indonesian people, are we so intolerant of them?

Interestingly, evidence suggests that in the past, up to the formation of the state of Israel, Jewishness was not considered to be something negative. In fact, one prized feature of the mystical and quintessential Javanese blade, the keris , is called “rajah Sulaiman,” meaning Solomon’s Mark, which is usually a gold inlay on the blade depicting two triangles joined together as the Star of David.

Anti-Jewish sentiment here must have begun with the foundation of the state of Israel and the wars with the Arabs that followed, but with the rise of Arab propaganda among Islamic countries following the flood of oil money, anti-Israel sentiment here has become almost synonymous with faith in Islam.

In this context, we can understand why some members of our legislature — who probably are trying to shore up their respectability following all the scandals and public displays of greed — have declared that they want to travel to the Middle East and Gaza on a humanitarian mission later this month. With no Indonesian diplomatic ties with Israel, the trip will surely have little impact on the Israel-Palestine peace process. Therefore the obvious reason for this trip is to impress people at home.

This is not to deny that according to our Constitution we are obliged to strive for world peace through free and active foreign policy; rather it is to emphasize that our free and active foreign policy would have much more real positive impact in the world if we were to sort out the injustices we cause to our own people, before we shout about the injustices that the people of Palestine endure.

Ironically, while we condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians ,we also treat our fellow Papuans as second-class citizens, with plans to destroy millions of hectares of their forests for so-called food estates that will feed people as far away as the United Arab Emirates. The ongoing policy of bringing non-Papuan settlers to the area can also be compared to the Jewish settlements on Palestinian soil, and the ban on journalists reporting freely on the situation is exactly the same as the Israeli military confiscating equipment from journalists reporting on the Freedom Flotilla. Parallels can be drawn between the recent fatal shooting of a woman by our police in a conflict at a palm oil company in Riau to the killing of unarmed protesters by Israeli forces in Gaza. So while we point one finger at Israel, three other fingers should point at ourselves, while our thumbs (the polite digit to point with in Java) is pointed in a completely different direction.

While he was in power, the late President Gus Dur floated the idea of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, but even though he was a respected Islamic scholar and leader of the largest Muslim organization in the world, his idea was shot down by Islamists in quick fashion. There is no way that Gus Dur was unaware of the anti-Jewish sentiment in several verses of the Koran and several traditions in the Hadith, and as a leader who was very close to the heartbeat of the common people, he also would have been aware of the anti-Jewish knee-jerk racism widespread among us. So why would he want our country, with the largest Muslim population on the planet, to establish diplomatic relations with Israel when he knew that even suggesting it would make an enemy of many of his supporters? As he was never someone to compromise the truth for the sake of public opinion, the answer is that he probably understood that it is impossible for us to contribute positively in the Israel-Palestine peace process if we only recognize Palestine without recognizing Israel.

With Iran vowing to provide a naval escort for the next flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade there is now a real threat that a full-scale war will erupt between Israel and its neighbors. With the issue of Palestine so close to our hearts and militant Islamism forever ready to pounce on any issue that can further its agenda, such a war would have disastrous effects in Indonesia.

Perhaps now is the time to suggest to the legislators who are planning a trip to Gaza to not only look for publicity over the suffering of Palestine, but also to seek ways to establish diplomatic relations with Israel — not to express support for their transgressions, but to open channels for dialogue to create a better world for all. The question is, do our lawmakers really care about peace in Palestine, or are they just interested in adding some shine to their tarnished domestic image?

Bramantyo Prijosusilo artist, poet and organic farmer in Ngawi, East Java

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