“Shinzou wo sasageyo!”: Anime-Manga and Antisemitism Education in Indonesia [English]

Internment Zones in Marley from Attack on Titan Season 3 Episode 19. Photo: Netflix

For a demographic giant like Indonesia, the size of its Jewish community is remarkably small. Only about two-hundred Indonesians identify themselves as Jewish, residing sparsely in cities as distant as between Jakarta and Jayapura. In light of their near absence, it might sound shocking that a 2017 survey found “Jews” to be among the top three most hated groups in Indonesia, ranked after “Communists” and “LGBT people”. But to those who observe the trend of polarizing identity politics and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “localized” against this background, this information is not so surprising.

Indonesia has been described as one of the hotbeds of antisemitism in the Asia-Pacific. Despite its dramatic tone, the description is not baseless. Go to your local bookstore and you would easily find sensational books claiming to expose hidden facts about Jews and conspiracies they undertake. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a classical antisemitic hoax, is frequently cited in these works. In some sermons, moreover, preachers have taken the imageries of Jews in religious scriptures outside of context, thereby essentializing them into timelessly negative traits. 

Holocaust denial, and the trivialization thereof, proves even more disturbing. In certain circles, the Holocaust’s scale is believed to have been exaggerated for sinister purposes. A false quotation by Hitler, popularized in a book I came across, reads: “I could have exterminated all Jews in the world, but I left a few alive so you can understand why I killed them”. It puzzles me that some Indonesians seem to idolize Hitler, even though their “racial inferiority”, as per the Nazi ideology, would have rendered them vulnerable to his menace. 

Jews are spoken of — and, in their invisibility, thereby imagined — as if they are “an arena or public space”, wrote Leonard C. Epafras. His 2010 book attracted readers with its provoking title: “Damn! Beckham is a Jew!” — the kind of exclamation some Indonesians make after being told that their idols are actually Jewish. While a love-hate ambivalence might be their immediate reaction having grasped how different Albert Einstein and Daniel Radcliffe are to their imagined “Jews”, this realization would over time help them unlearn existing prejudice.

However, not all prejudice-unlearning attempts bear the same fruit. In June 1994, the public screening of Steven Spielberg’s “The Schindler’s List”, a staple for Holocaust pedagogy in the West, was prohibited in Indonesia. Despite its value in improving historical literacy on the genocide’s victims and in cultivating empathy towards them, the movie was seen by certain mass organizations as too one-sided. In a context where the Holocaust and the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus) are viewed as competing victimhood, some Indonesians may feel discouraged to delve “too much” into the history of Jewish persecution lest they be seen as toning down their commitment to Palestine.

This zero-sum mentality is toxic and must be addressed. But how?

As a first step, we have to go beyond the Western-centric model of antisemitism education and be willing to adjust to local contexts. Other regions of the world cannot be expected to have the same level of familiarity with and receptivity to Holocaust movies as the West. In Indonesia, the usage of popular media to combat antisemitism must retain a degree of subtlety, because – as demonstrated by “The Schindler’s List” — relying on those with an overtly Jewish “packaging” tends to be counter-productive.

Such endeavor, I suggest, should find “The Attack on Titan” anime-manga series worthwhile of consideration as a source to derive fresh pedagogical tools.

“Attack on Titan” and The History of Jewish Persecution

It is difficult to overlook the sheer popularity of “Attack on Titan” or AOT series among Indonesia’s younger generation. Unlike other anime and manga, whose performative manifestation is typically found in Jejepangan (Japanese culture) events, AOT uniquely found its way to penetrate the realm of political activism. During the nation-wide Omnibus Law protests, students were seen singing the series’ anthem Shinzou wo Sasageyo! (dedicate your heart!) while “Attack on DPR”, a video which parodied the protest’ clips with the series’ opening aesthetics, went viral on YouTube.

AOT is set in a universe where humanity, who live in walled territories, struggle to survive from gigantic man-eating humanoids known as “titans”. Later in the series, the main characters discover that they and the titans belong to the same nation of Eldia — a unique people with titan-transforming ability. It was also revealed that their main nemesis, rather than the titans, is a nation called Marley — a great power that forcibly transforms Eldians into titans as weapons of war.

As the series progresses, the Eldia vs. Marley saga becomes increasingly reflective of the history of Jewish persecution in Europe. For Indonesians unfamiliar with the Holocaust’s stories, sinking in this (uncanny!) resemblance can be an emotionally overwhelming process.

Marley’s portrayal as a militarist and propagandistic state mirrors Nazi Germany both in its appearance and ideology. Like pre-emancipation Jews in Europe, Eldians in Marley live as the society’s underclass. The Eldians’ titan impurity fuels their image as a potential fifth column. To monitor them, Marleyan authority forces Eldians to wear identifying armbands and limit their residence in selected “internment zones”— reminiscent of what I saw in my 2018 visit to Krakow’s walled ghetto. Jews in Nazi-occupied territories, too, had to be distinguishable by their Judenstern yellow badge.

To stay unharmed, Eldians have to abide by the dominant norms and culture. A select few “warriors” who demonstrate exceptional loyalty and merits can become honorary Marleyans. However, they have to blindly obey Marley, disavow their Eldian heritage, and even rebuke their fellow Eldians. Such was a similar dilemma that assimilationist Jews in Europe faced. As the wave of emancipation swept Europe in the 19th century, many Jews saw an opportunity for upward social mobility. To be fully assimilated, however, Jews have to “reform” their relationship with tradition and blend into their secular surrounding. To stay relevant, the so-called enlightened Jews would have to openly rebuke the traditional worldview of their benighted co-religionists. This brought in motion the “orthodox vs. reform” schism within Judaism whose consequences are still seen today. 

One tangible aspect of assimilation is the making of Jewish surnames. While Jews traditionally used patronymic names (ben, son of), around the 18th century they were pressured to adopt fixed surnames for ease of administration. New names were thus created: some opt to use their origins (“Shapiro” from the city of Speyer), others use their occupations (“Kauffmann”, merchant in German). “Ackermann” (plower in German), the surname of AOT’s two main protagonists, is another product of this innovation.

In acutely racist societies, however, assimilation could become a false hope. One episode depicts Colt Grice — a respectable Eldian soldier — being humiliated by a Marleyan office and having his loyalty questioned, although he just nearly died fighting in the frontline. This scene echoes the themes from the well-known Dreyfus Affair. The antisemitic prejudice driving the false espionage accusation against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier of France, heightened among Jews the sense that the assimilation strategy had failed. 

The Affairs would later impact Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl profoundly. “In vain are we loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes”, he bemoaned in Der Judenstaat.  “In countries where we have lived for centuries”, Herzl wrote, “we are still cried down as strangers”.

A Promising Way Forward?

The pedagogical utility of anime and manga, contrary to common perception, extends beyond art studios and language classrooms. Pop culture is a rich toolbox that can help us learn and teach complex socio-political issues; antisemitism is no exception.

The parallels between the Eldian story in the “Attack on Titan” series and the Jewish persecution in Europe should be of value to educational campaigns on antisemitism in Indonesia. The key comparative topics I hitherto elaborated should equip campaigners with the nuance needed to develop a more instructive, contextual literacy on Jewish history — whose absence has contributed to the problematic conflation between legitimate criticism against Israel and hate-speech against Jews by Indonesians. 

The vagueness and intangibility with which the Holocaust is spoken about in Indonesia banalize the experience of learning about this genocide, as though it is “just another tragedy” in history.  There is a lacuna of a visual representation of this historical event — one that the phenomenally popular AOT series could fill. Certainly, the series cannot hope to compare with the banned “Schindler’s List” in terms of historical accuracy. Nor could the series cultivate the same kind and degree of empathy. However, in a context where certain Indonesian circles would instantly reject anything outwardly Jewish, I argue that AOT series is still valuable as an entrance door, rather than classroom, for conversations on antisemitism.

Detabooization is not an instant process. Pop culture, admittedly, could never replace an extensive engagement with relevant literatures and documentaries as a requisite in educating oneself on antisemitism. But for Indonesian first timers on the issue, the series provides an array of accessible allegories that help them register what would otherwise be a heavy baggage of historical information.

Owing to the series’ length and detailed storyline, the character development of the Eldian main protagonists has progressed in such a way that fans — like me — have developed an emotional personal attachment to each and every one of them. I see no reason that this observable affinity to the Eldians could not be extrapolated in persuading Indonesians who once demonized Jews to begin humanizing them.

Gilang Al Ghifari Lukman is the Head of Research Bureau at Haifa Institute. He is currently pursuing an MPhil at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter with the username @gilangbinlukman

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