JAKARTA: It is not easy to find a place offering Hebrew language courses in Indonesia where anti-Israel sentiment is always high.
But when computer science lecturer, Alz Danny Wowor, found a place in Jakarta that offered courses, he signed up last month. Since then, he has been commuting eight hours by train every Monday and Wednesday from Semarang in Central Java to Jakarta to learn the language in a 1.5-hour afternoon session. When the class is over, he takes the night train back to Semarang.
“I have a keen interest in cryptography, and Israel is well known for its sophisticated cryptography. I am learning the language so I can understand that better, particularly the Atbash cypher,” Wowor told Arab News on the sidelines of the course which is held at the office of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in central Jakarta.
The teacher, Sapri Sale, is a Muslim who studied at an Islamic boarding school in East Java and earned his degree in Arabic literature from Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
He also the wrote the first Indonesian-Hebrew dictionary which he worked on for 10 years. The dictionary is divided into three parts — dictionaries for Indonesian-Hebrew, and Hebrew-Indonesian as well as a glossary — and was published in late February.
Sale told Arab News that he became interested in learning Hebrew during his student days in Egypt in the early 1990s; he noted that Egyptians in general see Israel as an enemy.
“The language triggered my curiosity, so I decided to learn it to help me understand more about it,” he said, adding that he self-taught himself for two years and at the beginning, he used second-hand text books from Cairo University’s Jewish literature studies. Later, he took a Hebrew course at the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.
The course at ICRP in Jakarta is the first one that has been open to the public, but he has taught private courses for groups in several places in the capital since August 2017.
Sapri found himself the object of verbal intimidation from those who find his activities unacceptable in a country where solidarity with Palestine evokes strong feelings and Israel is regarded as the enemy. He is also aware that his positive intention to promote the language may result in a backlash against him.
“People have even called me ‘Sapri Jewish’ in a sarcastic way,” he said, adding that despite the religious and political contexts, Hebrew is a language worth learning just like any other foreign language.
His students come from different backgrounds but are mostly Christians who want to be able to improve their understanding of the Bible. They make up 70 percent of his students with the remaining 30 percent being Muslims.
“The 30 percent can learn Hebrew faster because as Muslims, we are usually taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic and that makes it easier for them to understand Hebrew because of the similarities between the two languages,” he said.
Musdah Mulia, the chairwoman of ICRP said the institution was willing to provide the space for the course though she is aware of a possible backlash against the institution.
“We can learn about another culture and history through language and Hebrew is a language. Language is neutral.” she said.