Asia Watch: It’s sensitive

NU Secretary-General Yahya Cholil Staquf in Jerusalem

It was the late former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, in his previous role as head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), who first declared his interest in Judaism and ties with Israel during the 1990s.

Following in the footsteps of his esteemed predecessor, NU Secretary-General Yahya Cholil Staquf has completed a four-day visit to Israel. He appeared at events hosted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, as well as having meetings at the Hebrew University, and talks with local Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders. 

Perhaps the most surprising appearance was the cleric’s unscheduled meeting with PM Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke of Israel’s warming ties with Muslim countries, saying “I hope that we have some movement with Indonesia.” 

Less surprising was the heavy criticism Yahya, who is on Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Presidential Advisory Board, received back home for visiting a country many consider an enemy state. But he maintained that he accepted the invitations in the spirit of tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, adding that he was not in Israel as an NU or government representative, although Widodo was “aware” of his visit.

Yahya insisted he was continuing Wahid’s mission to foster world peace and that that he had not broken faith with Indonesia’s traditionally strong support for the Palestinian cause. “I stand here for Palestine. I stand here on the basis that we have to honour Palestine’s sovereignty as a free country,” he said in a statement on NU’s official website. 

“Some people here are amazed by my decision to come, because they think it must be dangerous for this man to come, thinking that many, many Muslims must be threatening him with death or something,” Yahya told the Associated Press.

During a discussion held by the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, Yahya spoke of the Islamic concept of rahmah (affection for and awareness of others) as a solution for the ongoing conflict in the West Bank. “Muslims and Jews have to find a new means to, first and foremost, understand the role of religion in real life, and second, to find a new interpretation of religious morality that can guide followers in promoting harmony,” he said.

Asked by the Times of Israel whether he is interested in promoting political relations between Jerusalem and Jakarta, Yahya replied: “Yes, of course. See, we are in the middle of complex problems that need to be dealt comprehensively in a global manner.”

In Indonesia, Twitter and Facebook filled with negative comments about the visit, while a montage image of Yahya, the Israeli and NU flags, went viral online. It was captioned: “When Muslims are wounded by an Israeli attack, the NU representative goes to Israel. This visit is a form of recognition of the state of Israel, hurting the hearts of Muslims and Palestinians.”

The visit occurred amidst an unfortunate tit-for-tat over visas for tourism between the two countries. 

The brouhaha began on June 1 when Indonesia’s Law and Human Rights Ministry confirmed that Indonesian immigration authorities had denied visas to 53 Israeli nationals who intended to enter Indonesia. Minister Yasonna Laoly declined to elaborate on the reason for the denial – “It is sensitive,” he said – although it was thought to reflect Indonesian sentiment over the recent deadly clashes on the Gaza border.

The Israeli authorities then apparently retaliated by barring Indonesians from entering the country starting June 9, although with many Indonesian pilgrimage tours caught in limbo, the ban was delayed until June 26 to allow for Eid celebrations.

Until now, despite the lack of diplomatic relations, Indonesians have been able to visit Israel on pilgrimage, while Israelis have visited Indonesia on what is referred to as a “calling visa” or “limited-stay visa”.

According to Israeli Tourism Ministry data, around 36,300 Indonesians visited the country last year – a 24% increase on the previous year’s figure. Indonesian tourists are also among the biggest spenders on average during their stay in Israel, spending around US$310 a day excluding airfares.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said she respected Israel’s decision and denied that Indonesia’s ban was politically motivated, according to Indonesian website tempo.co.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has won a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, with four other countries elected by the UN General Assembly for a two-year term in 2019-20. It will be Indonesia’s fourth time as a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

In announcing Indonesia’s priorities for the term, FM Marsudi cited developing a global approach to terrorism, radicalism and, in particular, the Palestinians. Having previously described Palestine as “at the heart of Indonesia’s foreign policy”, she stated that the issue “will be of concern to Indonesia in its membership.”