Category: Politics

A Muslim man on a quest to introduce Hebrew in anti-Israel Indonesia

Hebrew is unlikely to be among the most preferred list of foreign languages to learn in Indonesia. Not just because it is the language of Israel, the country that most Indonesians have a hostile view to, but also because there was not a place that offered the courses.

But a Muslim man who studied at an Islamic boarding school in East Java and earned his degree in Arabic literature from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Sapri Sale, saw this as an opportunity to introduce the language in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Sapri said there is nothing political or ideological in his mission to teach Hebrew in a country where solidarity with Palestine is a strong issue and Israel is regarded as the enemy. He also said despite the religious and political contexts, he just wanted to introduce Hebrew as a language worth learning for Indonesians just like any other foreign language.

“We lack information about Israel because we don’t have access to their language,” he said on the sidelines of the course earlier this week, which is held every Monday and Wednesday at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’, by learning their language so we can understand them better,” he added.

Sapri Sale showed his students how to write in Hebrew during a session at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The course at ICRP is the first one that has been open to the public, but Sapri has taught private courses for groups in several places in Jakarta since August 2017. Now that he’s open with his activities, he said that various groups in other parts of the country have asked him to teach them.

According to Sapri, unlike in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where Indonesian as a language is learned out of necessity because of the significant presence of Indonesian migrant workers there, Indonesian is introduced in Israel through cultural studies program in university.

Sapri became interested in learning Hebrew during his student days in Egypt in the early 1990s and noted that Egyptians in general see Israel as an enemy.

“It triggered my curiosity, so I decided to learn Hebrew to be able to know more about it,” he said, adding that he self-taught himself the language for two years and at the beginning he used second-hand text books from Cairo University’s Jewish literature studies. He then took a Hebrew course at the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.

Sapri, who also teaches Arabic, is aware that his positive intention to promote the language would result in a backlash against him and he has found himself the target of verbal intimidation from those who find his activities unacceptable.

“People have even called me ‘Sapri Jewish’, in a sarcastic way,” he said.

Sapri also wrote the first-ever Indonesian-Hebrew dictionary which he worked on for 10 years. The dictionary is divided into three parts, dictionaries for Indonesian-Hebrew and Hebrew-Indonesian as well as a glossary and was launched in late February.

Sapri said he was not surprised that he could not find a publisher that wanted to publish a book potential to trigger controversy, so he foot the bill to have the dictionary with 35,000 vocabularies published. As expected, major bookstore chains would not display it on their shelves, but Sapri said he could still make a sale through small, independent bookstores and online marketplaces.

The dictionary is acknowledged in the “Israel Berbahasa Indonesia” or Israel Speaks Indonesian official fan page on Facebook, which identifies its administrator as a government organization in Jerusalem and lists the Israeli foreign ministry’s web address in its profile.

His students come from different background, such as Alz Danny Wowor, a computer science lecturer at a university in Central Java and cryptography enthusiast. He signed up last month and since then, he has been commuting eight hours by train from Semarang in Central Java to Jakarta to learn the language in a 1.5-hour afternoon session. He takes the night train back to Semarang when the session is over.

“I have a keen interest in cryptography, and Israel is well-known for its sophisticated cryptography. I am learning the language so I can understand it better, such as the Atbash cypher,” Wowor said, adding that he hopes to study cryptography in Israel someday and learning Hebrew is part of his preparations.

Sapri said most of his students are Christians who want to improve their understanding of the Bible through its original language. They make up 70 percent of his students, with  the remaining 30 percent being Muslims.

“The 30 percent can learn Hebrew faster because as Muslims, we are usually taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic, so it makes them easier to understand Hebrew because of the similarities in the two languages,” he said.


Sapri said that geopolitical issues aside, he hopes Indonesians would not be “allergic” to learn Hebrew just because it is associated with Israel.

Musdah Mulia, the chairwoman of ICRP said the institution was willing to provide the space for the course because they share the same vision in developing better
understanding between faiths and cultures, though she is aware of the possible repercussion against the institution.

“Language is neutral. We can learn about another culture and history through language and Hebrew is a language,” she said.

This story has been expanded from its original version in Arab News


Indonesia’s House speaker evades arrest in graft case

The speaker of Indonesia’s parliament has evaded an attempt by the country’s anti-corruption commission to arrest him as a suspect in a huge graft case, the commission said.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has accused House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto of corruption in a 440-million-dollar project to make electronic ID cards during the previous government.

Investigators came to Novanto’s house late Wednesday with an arrest warrant but he was nowhere to be found, said KPK spokesman Febri Diansyah.

“We’re still looking for him, but we don’t know where he is,” Diansyah said.

Novanto’s lawyer, Fredrich Yunadi, said his wife did not know where he was.

“The family is very worried but there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

Losses to the state as a result of corruption in the project are estimated at 2.3 trillion rupiah (172 million dollars), according to the commission.

Novanto is also the chairman of the Golkar Party, a member of the ruling coalition, and an ally of President Joko Widodo.

KPK first named Novanto a suspect in the case in August but a court ruled there was insufficient initial evidence to justify the step in a pre-trial decision.

Last week, the commission again formally named him a suspect.

A wealthy businessman himself, Novanto met US President Donald Trump in September 2015, while the latter was campaigning for the presidency, to discuss investment in Indonesia.

After Trump came to power, President Joko tasked Novanto with establishing a rapport with the new US administration.

Novanto has denied any wrongdoing.

Two officials at the Home Affairs Ministry have been sentenced to seven and five years in prison in the case, while a businessman is also on trial.

More than 30 members of parliament from the 2004-09 period, plus a former Home Affairs minister, have been implicated in the case.

In April, a top investigator for the anti-corruption commission investigating the case, Novel Baswedan, had acid thrown in his face by two attackers.

He is still being treated in a Singapore hospital. Nobody has yet been arrested for the crime.

Indonesian police break alleged online fake news syndicate

Indonesian police have arrested three people they say were part of a syndicate that spread fake news and other misinformation online for money.

The group, called Saracen, posted false news, provocative memes and other forms of content on social media to suit the agenda of their paymasters, said national police spokesman Awi Setiyono.

The alleged syndicate involved about 800,000 social media accounts and offered its services to individuals for payments, he said, adding that police were trying to find out who their clients were.

“These people were engaged in hate speech,” the Setiyono said. “People must not fall for memes intended to create ethnic, religious and racial divisions.”

Ethnic and religious tensions rose earlier this year in the run-up to the Jakarta gubernatorial election pitting then-incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, and former education minister Anies Baswedan.

While campaigning, Basuki was charged with blasphemy after hundreds of thousands of Muslims rallied to demand he be prosecuted over remarks that his opponents misused a verse from the Koran to prevent him from winning another term.

He lost an April election run-off to Anies, who was backed by Muslim conservatives, despite winning the most vote in the first round vote, and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.

Indonesian ulema council issues fatwa against fake news

Indonesia’s Islamic authority issued a fatwa against fake news over concerns about how religious and ethnic tensions are fuelled by hoaxes, its chairman said Tuesday.

The Indonesian Council of Ulema, a semi-official body, declared that producing and spreading fake news is forbidden in Islam, chairman Ma’ruf Amin said.

“There’s growing anxiety that fake news has created divisions and hostilities in society,” Amin said.

“We hope that this fatwa can curb negative content,” he said.

Indonesians are among the biggest users of Facebook and Twitter, and politicians are increasingly using social networks to reach voters.

Popular Twitter users who are paid to tweet, known locally as “buzzers,” to promote politicians must not post content that are divisive, slanderous and false, Amin said.

Online bullying and hate speech are also haram, or forbidden, the cleric said.

Former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian of Chinese descent, was jailed for two years last month for blasphemy in a case that stemmed from a video posted online.

In the video that went viral, Purnama made comments about a passage in the Koran that many conservative Muslims deemed insulting, sparking a series of massive protests demanding his prosecution last year.

The case has fuelled resentment against minority ethnic Chinese, who are often perceived as wealthy.

Jailed Jakarta governor drops appeal against blasphemy conviction

Imprisoned Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has decided to withdraw an appeal against his two-year sentence for blasphemy, his family said.  Continue reading “Jailed Jakarta governor drops appeal against blasphemy conviction”