Little Windows on Big Questions

There is a really interesting set of stories at Inside Indonesia on Indonesia’s small but interesting Jewish community (historical and contemporary). (II is one of the best sources for interesting stories about contemporary Indonesia, written largely by scholars and always timely and relevant. It is one of the few web things that I (TP) always read.) We rarely think about Jews in Indonesia, but when you consider that the Dutch East Indies was a really complex melting pot of different peoples (including substantial numbers of “foreign Easterners” from what we today call the Middle East), that the Netherlands had many Jews prior to WWII, and that the Dutch East Indies started off as a purely economic enterprise (as the VOC), it’s not surprising that there would be a number of European and Middle Eastern Jews in what is today Indonesia by 1900. There is a lot of interesting research right now on these communities. If you have the time, read through those stories, they’re fascinating.

But this post isn’t about Indonesia’s Jews per se. It’s more about what we learn about big questions from focusing on such small issues. Let me be clear: while I think that is history of Jews in Indonesia is interesting (in the same way that I think that Siddis and Malagasy in Peru are interesting) this is a really minor issue in Indonesian history. Nevertheless, it is common in contemporary historical research to find very small minor, neglected bits of history and to focus on these. Whereas political scientists are forever trying look for broad patterns across all humans past and present, historians are always interested in the murk and the quirk that you see in the unwritten histories of marginalized peoples.

Yet I think that it’s possible to try to bring these two perspectives (broad statements about all people everywhere, versus narrow observations about a couple of people in one place in one time) into dialogue with one another. That is, I think that studying Indonesia’s Jews is an academically useful exercise. It is not because they are just interesting on their own, it is because they allow us to look at big questions in a different way. Indonesia’s Jews are little windows on big questions.

  1. An often-forgotten part Indonesia (and the Netherlands, to be honest) is the extent to which Europeans and indigenous Indonesians “mixed” (if you know what I mean). Indonesia’s Jews by necessity had to marry from outside of the community, much like European, Chinese, and Arab communities. Studying Indonesia’s Jews is therefore a way to study broader issues of how identity was constructed in a plural society.
  2. We often think that Jewish-Muslim or Jewish-Christian conflict has always been around. But clearly that’s not true across time and space. I think you could probably learn a lot about historical perspectives on interfaith relations by studying how Jews navigate a  Muslim-majority country colonized by a Christian one.
  3. International migration has always been a big deal. That’s why I’m an American rather than Welsh, why JMP is American rather than Austro-Hungarian, you get the idea. It is definitely possible to learn a lot about how international migration worked in the colonial era by studying Jews (for example, this story about Bruno Berler, the Hungarian who went to Indonesia after failing in Mexico). And you can learn a lot, in turn, about how colonial regimes thought about their borders and migration by studying how vulnerable minorities moved within colonial empires (this is the story with my colleague‘s work on Kỳ Đồng, the Vietnamese patriot sent by the French to Algeria and Tahiti

There are probably more, but these are the three that come to mind. It’s how I reconcile spending time thinking about really minor bits of Indonesian history when my job is to use Indonesia to make the most broadly applicable claims about humanity possible.

Comments 2

  1. Matt July 13, 2011

    I thought for sure this post was going to culminate in some reference to EVH. I mean, granted I’m wired strangely, but seeing the words DUTCH, INDONESIA, MELTING POT, and INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION basically force my brain to think “Eruption.”


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