Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Why President Jokowi Should Wish All Jews a Happy Passover

Niruban Balachandran
March 4, 2020 | 4:41 pm
President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo prepares for a speech at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Tuesday. (Antara Photo/Sigid Kurniawan)
President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo prepares for a speech at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Tuesday. (Antara Photo/Sigid Kurniawan)

[Updated at 05:50 p.m. on Thursday, 5 March 2020]

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's recent Christmas greeting and uplifting message of tolerance was moving and timely. Now, the year 2020 is an opportunity for harmony, illumination and inspiration, with dozens of religious holidays celebrated in Indonesia.

One special holiday of note is Passover – the celebration of the Exodus of the Jewish people from 400 years of slavery – which runs from sundown on Wednesday, April 8, and ends at nightfall on Thursday, April 16.

Although Passover is not one of the Jewish High Holy Days, it is an unexpectedly complex and fascinating holiday.


Jews are an ethnoreligious group indigenous to the Middle East, with a total global population of approximately 15 million – less than half the population of Greater Jakarta.

In fact, approximately 200 Jewish Indonesians, mostly descendants of Middle Eastern and Dutch Jews, actively practice Judaism across the archipelago – primarily in Jakarta, Bekasi, Manado and Papua.

Indonesians, especially all students and workers overseas, should ask their Jewish friends and colleagues more about the Passover holiday. They may also be surprised by how heartwarming it is. Back when I was a university student, my Jewish roommate (and still a close friend) Elazar invited me to a "Seder" dinner to celebrate and retell the story of Passover.

The original Passover story, which describes Moses' courageous resolve to tell the cruel Egyptian Pharaoh "Let my people go!", then rescue the enslaved Jews to the new land of Israel, is heroic and inspiring.

Indonesians from all faiths and worldviews will probably find much to appreciate in the Exodus story's celebration of universal values: social justice, vitality, persistence, valor and freedom from oppression.

The annual Muslim 500 global ranking, as well as Foreign Policy, Time and Forbes magazines, have all rightly honored President Jokowi as either one of the world's most powerful people, or as one of the world's most influential people.

Indeed, as president of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation and eighth-largest economy, Jokowi's voice resonates through the prestigious G20, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other powerful international blocs.

But of course, with great power (or great influence) comes great responsibility.

In April, in addition to President Jokowi's annual Ramadan greeting, he should also wish all Jews worldwide a "Happy Passover." To Indonesians who ask, "For what reason?", the answer is that operating in multireligious settings is a key requirement for global leadership.

In fact, leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain and other Muslim-majority nations have all publicly greeted and wished their indigenous Jewish communities on their religious holidays.

Moses is also a well-respected leader in Islam, Christianity and Judaism alike. Therefore, like Moses, leadership requires President Jokowi's courageous resolve.

If Indonesians want more of the world to honor them as respected global leaders, then they need to actually build the most difficult, most necessary bridge of all for international peace: Jewish-Muslim ties.

To those who wonder if extremists in Indonesia and overseas might express anger at Jokowi's Passover greetings, I ask: really, what can the fundamentalists do to us?

Any anti-Jewish rhetoric from them will only publicly reveal their own utter bigotry and conspiracy-theorizing.

As the late Indonesian President B.J. Habibie said, "Without love, intelligence is dangerous, and without love, intelligence is not enough."

Secondly, with both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise, Jews worldwide need Muslim allies, just like Muslims worldwide need Jewish allies. Indonesia is an optimal place to start.

As a leader of one of the world's largest and most diverse nations, President Jokowi should emphatically encourage all faiths to stand up for each other – especially in moments of oppression.

The mantra "There but for the grace of God go I," springs to mind. So does the Nazi-era poem "First they came...," which describes the wishy-washy cowardice of German society during Hitler's genocide of six million Jewish civilians – 1.1 million murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp alone.

(As of February 2020, only about 195,000 Holocaust survivors are alive today.)

All of us want to be treated as if we were valuable and worthy. This is because the human desire for dignity – the acknowledgment of our sufferings in life and of our fundamental value – is a universal thirst.  

Lastly, Judaism is also arguably consistent with the four central pillars of the Indonesian state: the Pancasila, the 1945 Indonesian Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom for all, the concept of a unitary state, as well as the national philosophy, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" (Unity in Diversity).

A recommitment to these pillars can help Jokowi overcome objections that building bridges with Jews is somehow anti-Palestinian or a betrayal of OIC members. It is neither.

Given the abovementioned 200-strong Indonesian Jewish community, officially recognizing Judaism and all of Indonesia's documented 1,200+ religions, not just the original six, would help Indonesia more fully live up to its declared ideals as a global leader and bridge-builder.

I also encourage Indonesians to consider visiting and following the social media accounts of inspiring interfaith groups like Palestine Loves Israel, Muslim-Jewish Brotherhood, The UN Alliance of Civilizations and The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which excel at bringing Muslims and Jews together, as equals, around superordinate values.

Warm Passover greetings in April from the president of Indonesia, with the Red-and-White flag proudly raised in the background, would be a win-win peace surplus for everybody.

In this time of cold geopolitical divisions, the world could frankly use more warmth.

Niruban Balachandran is an American of Sri Lankan descent and a 2017 graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Correction: The previous version of this article misstated the figure of the Holocaust survivors who are still alive today. The figure should be 195,000 survivors, not 2,000. The Jakarta Globe regrets the errors.  

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