Only one lonely synagogue remains in a far corner of Indonesia, a nation of 255 million people. With the highest concentration of Muslims in the world, the estimated 200 Jews left in Indonesia live an uneasy co-existence with their neighbors, doing all they can to avoid attention and trouble.
Into this mix, the Israeli art group “Artists 4 Israel” touched ground Feb. 18, spending several weeks on a goodwill tour. Their scope is wide and their vision broad, including charity, urban beautification, women’s rights, and an anti-BDS message. The latter was tough for them to do while avoiding a public Jewish identity.
Artists 4 Israel includes some of the world’s top graffiti artists and a host of other creative professionals who travel with them. In Indonesia they created towering, building-sized murals promoting women’s rights and tolerance of religion and race (none of which are a particularly popular view there). Even the concept of tolerance is foreign to many in these cloistered religious nations.
“We felt incredibly welcomed by Indonesian artists and the local community – but we were also warned to keep our identities secret in some parts of the country,” says Craig Dershowitz, president of Artists 4 Israel, who organized the trip.
Although minorities lived there for centuries, Indonesia is showing symptoms of the Islamic fundamentalism blighting other nations. Artists 4 Israel (A4I) also found at times tolerance was a dangerous topic, bringing fear instead of hope. A week before A4I arrived in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a sword-carrying man attacked members of the congregation at St. Lidwina Church, injuring their priest and hacking at a statue of Jesus and Mary. The artists struggled against falling prey themselves to the same fears they hoped to combat in Indonesia.
“We were beseeched to avoid news stories of our trip to Indonesia until we returned, to make sure we did not wear our Artists 4 Israel branded shirts, to be circumspect with whom we shared our itinerary, and to never, ever openly share the names of the Indonesians cooperating with us,” Dershowitz said. Even if they came and went unmolested, Indonesians still had to live there after they left. “The consequences of partnering with an Israel related organization or a pro-Jewish group could be fatal,” Dershowitz warned.
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Violent threats aren’t a new scenario for these young men and women. As part of an appeal for peace in Israel, they painted bomb shelters while terrorists fired rockets at them in Siderot, Israel. A4I also launched a guerrilla mural campaign along the Syrian border, which has become a simmering war zone, the entire world eyeing warily.
Overall, their first experience in a Muslim-majority nation was positive, and the artists refused to judge all Indonesians colored by the actions of “a few extremists.” They also attempted to balance their views, protesting both “anti-Semitism” and “Islamophobia” in their art. One series with exquisite tessellation and patterns used Arabic script, which at least some Indonesians will read.
Portuguese artist Pariz One claimed he also experienced discrimination early in his career. “This challenged me as a person and artist. With hard work, conversations, and big murals, I flip the coin and turn haters into admirers.” His optimistic attitude is echoed in other members, who mentioned that although they highlight injustice and problem areas, they also seek to celebrate “places that come close to realizing a more just world.” Kind of like mini-Nobel Peace Prizes.
Dershowitz admits it will take much more time and effort to establish real bridges between Israel and Indonesia. “One of our artists painted a mural across the street from our hotel in Yogyakarta and signed it ‘Artists 4 Israel.’ It was up for no more than three minutes before the hotel manager, obviously frightened, ran out and made us remove it.” They also painted over the word “Israel” with the word ‘NO.’ Dershowitz marveled that this happened in a tourist hot-spot and in a relatively tolerant area.
Terror over an image, an art show, or a mere word on a wall reveals the deep undercurrent of fear Indonesians have over their own Islamic radicals. Native artists partnering with the group experienced dangerous attacks as well, before the visit. In 2017, some A4I-related artists put up a gallery show about gender equality for women. Their gallery was attacked in the night and the space devastated. Next day, their landlord forced them to immediately vacate the premises over death threats he was receiving.
This was exactly the type of fear and bigotry A4I artists hoped to fight, armed only with paint cans and good intentions. Spanish street-artist Muro sounded off on this: “Prejudices are all around us – breaking them is a job we all have to do. Working with Artist 4 Israel has opened my mind in many ways. Differences in culture and religion matter only so much, we all live in one world.”
Perhaps the best-known of Art 4 Israel’s works is their peripatetic, multi-media “Bomb Shelter Museum of Living History.” This fully immersive experience is an exact replica of bomb shelters in Israel, simulating attacks against Jews that are a common occurrence in Sderot, Ashdod or Ashkelon. Within a small portable room, artists and technicians recreate the “sights, sounds, smells and feel of an attack in terrifying detail.” This unimposing box has illuminated thousands of students over Hamas’ sponsored violence, as well as showing up in news pieces, and even making a stop at Art Basel, Miami.
These are SJWs with a righteous mission, and their forays are making inroads against anti-Semitism across the world. Art 4 Israel describes how reactions to art, color and healing are almost the same in every country, once they get past the politics: “Color changes the environment and gives people a sense of their own power to make other changes. In that way, Israel and Indonesia have more in common than anyone would expect.”
It would take some very impressive art indeed to convince Hamas and other terrorists to lay down their weapons. Is it possible that paintings and poetry can do this, or must it be the art of war?