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Ronit Ricci is an Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in the School of Culture, History and Language. Her research interests include Javanese and Malay manuscript literatures, Indonesian history and culture, translation studies, and the diasporic Indonesian-Malay community in Sri Lanka. She is currently establishing the field of Indonesian Studies in Israel and is developing links between ANU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to support this endeavour.
Tell us about your decision to move back to Israel.
In late 2013 I reduced my employment fraction at the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) in order to move back to Israel and take up a position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There were two major reasons for my decision to leave Canberra, which I love, and my wonderful colleagues and friends at the School whom I have missed ever since: being close to my family after many years of living overseas, and the opportunity to develop the new field of Indonesian Studies in Israel. Although Israelis travel widely, many young ones choose to study other cultures and languages at university and the field of Asian Studies is flourishing, Indonesia has never been present on the academic map there and very few Israelis have visited the country. This is above all because Israel and Indonesia have never established diplomatic relations and it is difficult, expensive, and often impossible for an Israeli citizen to enter Indonesia.
With this in mind it is clearly challenging to introduce Indonesian Studies to an Israeli university. But challenges are good! And it has been encouraging to see that despite the problem of access to the country, and an almost complete lack of funding and support outside the university (including diplomatic, economic or cultural links) there are students who are curious and keen, and their numbers have been increasing, however modestly, from one year to the next. Courses I teach include Bahasa Indonesia, a cultural and historical introduction to Indonesia, and a course on Islam in Southeast Asia, while visiting scholars have taught courses on Indonesian historiography and Muslim popular culture in Indonesia.
Tell us about the work you are doing to develop ties between ANU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. What collaborations have been taking place and what is planned for the future?
Part of my thinking about Indonesian Studies in Israel has been about making connections between the remarkable tradition and the richness of this field at ANU and the very small and very young field in Israel. To date we do not have any formal collaborations or agreements between the universities but informally there have been several instances of collaboration and participation of ANU colleagues at events in Israel which have been very successful. The main event to date has been an inaugural conference on Indonesia (on which more below) but there have also been guest lectures given by ANU academic staff (Ross Tapsell, Greg Fealy), a Javanese dance workshop (Amrih Widodo), and an upcoming short-term visiting professorship (Assa Doron).
I would very much like to involve any interested CHL colleagues in this endeavour, as well as think of collaborations between ANU and Hebrew U in the wider field of Asian Studies. This article is in part an invitation for anyone who has ideas to please be in touch.
You organised a conference on Indonesia at the Hebrew University last year. Could you tell us more about this event and how it contributed to developing ties between Israelis and Indonesians?
The conference took place in late November 2017 in Jerusalem. It was the first ever conference of its kind in Israel and was titled Introducing Indonesia: History, Culture, Politics. Speakers came from Australia, New Zealand, The US, Israel and Indonesia. ANU was represented by Greg Fealy, Ross Tapsell and Amrih Widodo. Getting the Indonesian scholars into Israel was very complicated and we did not know until the week before the conference whether their visas would be granted. Obviously it was extremely important to have Indonesians take part. The conference was open to the general public and covered a range of topics, all presented very engagingly by the speakers. In addition to talks the conference included a Javanese dance workshop, a gamelan performance by the Jerusalem Gamelan, a mask dance performance by Amrih Widodo, a film screening and a guided tour of Jerusalem’s Old City for participants. I required my students to attend and their feedback was very positive, as was that of others. The conference allowed many of them a more in-depth glimpse of Indonesia and an encounter with top-rate scholars from across the world who study Indonesia from many perspectives including anthropology, religious studies, history, politics, gender studies and more. The opportunity to meet with Indonesians was especially significant and memorable.
Why is establishing Indonesian studies in Israel important?
That is a good question. I feel that Indonesia is a fascinating country for many reasons and I want to share my own interest in it and the inspiration studying it has afforded me with others. In addition, and more specifically to the Israeli context, I think it is very important for Israelis to understand something about the Muslim world beyond the Middle East. Without going into this issue at length I would say that due to the particular history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is absolutely crucial for young Israelis to broaden their view of Islam as an internally diverse civilization, with the hope that a more nuanced and better informed view will reduce negative attitudes and narrowmindedness and increase understanding.
In addition, I think Israel and Indonesia share some similarities despite the many differences between them, and that these would be fascinating to study comparatively. One issue that stands out perhaps above all others is that of the relationship between the state and religion and the many fundamental implications to that link.
What is the current state of Asian studies in Israel more generally?
Asian Studies in Israel is doing well. There are programs in four out of five of the major universities. The main countries studied are China, Japan and India, with Korea and Indonesia added recently at Hebrew University. There is a bi-annual international Asian Studies conference, many workshops and smaller conferences and other initiatives. At Hebrew U we offer Sanskrit, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese and Indonesian on a regular basis with additional languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Pali, Tibetan) taught occasionally.
What draws your current students at the Hebrew University to the studying Indonesia, and what do they say about their experiences?
I think in part what draws them is sheer curiosity toward the unknown. I know that was what first drew me to Indonesia. In addition, some (especially those studying Arabic and Muslim history) are interested because they have heard that Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and they wonder about how similar or different it might be in that regard to the countries of the Middle East. Linguistics students are curious about Bahasa Indonesia because it is the only Austronesian language taught at the university. Others take one of the courses as an elective and wish to know more.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Although what I’ve described above is essentially positive, a lot remains to be done. I am currently the only academic staff member in the field and clearly there is a limit to what a single person can accomplish. Hebrew U has not yet committed to funding a full or even part-time language teacher for Indonesian. Therefore a collaborative element is absolutely essential if this initiative is going to succeed to any degree. In 2018-2019 (beginning in September) there will be an international research group based in Jerusalem working on New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature at the Israel Institute for Advanced Study. Members of this group will each contribute in their own way to the development of Indonesian Studies and I am happy to report that George Quinn will be spending four months as a group member and has generously offered to teach modern Javanese.
The beginners gamelan course will be offered again after a long hiatus, a wayang performance is planned and there will be various other events, so this coming year is covered, but I would be very grateful to hear from anyone at CHL who has ideas or questions or suggestions on how to move Indonesian Studies forward and/or anyone interested in Asian Studies collaborations or exchanges in the future.
Please email email@example.com if you have any ideas and/or would like to be involved.