A first of its kind Israeli conference took place last week at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. The conference was dedicated to Indonesia which, with its thousands of islands, rising economic importance, hundreds of languages, rich performative traditions, and its significance as the world’s 3rd largest democracy, 4th most populous nation, and home to the world’s largest Muslim community, is no doubt worthy of study and engagement. And yet, due to historical and political factors, foremost among them the absence of diplomatic relations between Israel and Indonesia, Indonesia is barely on the radar of members of the Israeli academic community and the wider public. Introducing Indonesia: History, Politics, and Culture was conceived by professor Ronit Ricci of the departments of Asian Studies and Comparative Religion as a kick-off event for Indonesian Studies in Israel, and the Hebrew University in particular, and as a first step in raising awareness of this important country. An additional goal of the conference was to build alternative bridges to those of diplomacy: ties of collegiality, friendship, exchange of ideas and collaborative research between scholars from Israel, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
Leading scholars from Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S and Israel presented cutting edge research in the fields of anthropology, cultural studies, gender studies, religion, history, politics and media studies, all with a focus on Indonesia. Lectures covered a range of topics including religious pluralism in Indonesia, trauma and memory in modern Indonesian history, discourses of moderation and extremism in Indonesian Islam, Indonesian foreign policy, digital media, women and Islam, ambivalent attitudes to Arabness in Indonesia, hip-hop and political activism, and more. The schedule allowed each speaker to begin with a broad introduction, followed by examples of in-depth research, with ample time left for questions and discussion.
In addition to lectures the conference offered a glimpse of Indonesia’s vibrant arts: a Javanese dance workshop for conference participants, an Indonesian film that follows the lives of three street musicians in Jakarta, and a gamelan performance accompanied by song and dance.
In line with the goal of making Indonesia more accessible beyond academe the conference was free and open to the public. Approximately 120 participants took part in the conference over two days, many of them affiliated with the Hebrew University. Undergraduate students taking the courses “Introduction to Indonesia: History and Culture,” “Islam in Southeast Asia,” and “Beginning Indonesian,” attended the conference and later wrote an assignment based on their observations.
A significant aspect of the conference was the inclusion of Indonesian scholars, whose entry to Israel was uncertain until the last minute due to the difficulty of attaining visas. Once here they enjoyed interacting with Israeli researchers and students, seeing the campus, and touring the Old City, as well as gaining first hand exposure to the complexities of Israeli life.
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