Discrimination is a disease, mostly debilitating, sometime fatal, that has existed since an ugly toad without a mirror saw another ugly toad and showered him with less than flattering adjectives, using the opposites to construct himself.

The disease is also known as racism, xenophobia, prejudice, intolerance and bigotry; its most distinctive symptom is fear. Most of us are to some degree affected by it, very few are immune, and inoculation requires a long course of self-analysis and self-discipline to rid ourselves of unnecessary bias and ill-informed perceptions, mostly caused by ignorance.

The most severe victims of this disease are susceptible to it because they manifest a slight resemblance to ‘otherness’. A typical example may be Ogni Gne (not her real name), an Indonesian Jew of Chinese descent I recently met.

The problems being: a) that Indonesia does not recognise Judaism as a religion; and b) that Indonesian discrimination towards ethnic Chinese has a long history dating back to the 1700’s. Discrimination on ethnic grounds was enshrined in law in Indonesia until President Gus Dur repealed it in 2000, but not before logging into the annals of history a series of atrocities that left a wake of death and destruction.

In 1740, as many as 5,000 Chinese were massacred causing the Chinese inhabitants to be ghettoised in Glodok outside the city walls. Glodok eventually became Jakarta’s Chinatown and the city’s flourishing commercial centre.

Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, Glodok was ransacked by rioting Indonesians accusing Chinese Indonesians of hoarding the nation’s wealth. The riots became more widespread and quickly turned into a pogrom targeting properties and businesses owned by Chinese Indonesians.  Some 1,500 people were killed and over 160 were raped in the riots

Following the pogrom and the mass rapes, the Government established a fact-finding team to investigate the riots and rapes. The team found that elements of the military had been involved in the riots, some of which were deliberately provoked, but it could only verify 66 rapes of women, the majority of whom were Chinese Indonesian, as well as numerous other acts of violence against women.

However, it is believed that rape cases were underreported as the Criminal Code would only consider penetration by a male sexual organ as rape. Rape by other sharp or blunt object are not regulated in the Criminal Code’s article on rape. Furthermore, according to the Indonesian Criminal Code, a rape victim has to provide witnesses and evidence of the occurrence for any legal proceedings to begin.

A journalist friend, who covered the riots for the international media, recalls those days with a sense of disbelief, as the cruelty witnessed reached levels of insanity. In recent times she met a man who, in describing the riots, appeared to express a sense of remorse, which further investigation denied. He lamented that what happened in Glodok was wrong because as a result too many Indonesians lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, in absence of a synagogue my Jewish Indonesian friend worships in a Christian church that observes the Sabbath, hoping that the Indonesian government will soon recognise Judaism as a legitimate religion with adherents in Jakarta and beyond.

During one of our conversations I asked Ogni Gne about the Israel-Palestine question, to which she replied that it was a no-brainer: “Palestinians were not chosen by God”.

Go figure!

Fotos: Glodok 2010