Indonesian soldier 88.
(photo credit: )
When Magen David Adom Chairman Dr. Noam Yifrach told Foreign Ministry officials that he had received an entry visa for Indonesia, he was told that entering the country wouldn't be the problem.
"They told me, 'We're sure you'll be able to go in,'" he said with a smile. "It's getting back out that we're concerned about."
Indonesia, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, has no official ties with Israel, and contact between the two countries, while not completely unheard of, is certainly rare.
But that didn't stop Yifrach and MDA coordinator to the Red Cross and Red Crescent David Abadi from traveling to the country's capital, Jakarta, last month to finalize plans for 23 Indonesian doctors to take part in a two-week-long seminar in Israel on the "management of multi-casualty incidents" - something for which the two countries sadly share a need.
Fast-forward to an auditorium inside an MDA station in Tel Aviv on Thursday, and history was being made.
The Indonesian doctors were there, along with MDA staff and representatives of the Center for International Cooperation (MASHAV), as the doctors received citations for the course, decked out in the traditional regalia of their homeland.
Thanks were given, from both sides, and talk of how the group's experiences would benefit each other took precedence over any mention of politics or religious differences.
"It's easier to order a pizza in Indonesia than an ambulance," Prof. Aryono D. Pusponegoro said to the laughter of his colleagues, alluding to the dismal paramedic response time in his country, which faces severe poverty and was hit hard by the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in 2004.
"People don't know what a paramedic is in Indonesia," he continued. "But after this trip, they will."
His goal is certainly within reach. With the success of this first delegation, MDA and their Indonesian counterparts hope to continue the exchange of doctors to and from each other's countries. In the coming weeks, a group of Israeli doctors will travel to Indonesia for another groundbreaking encounter in that country, and more delegations of Indonesian medical personnel are anticipating an arrival in Israel in the near future.
The recent meetings here, most of which took place in Shefayim, were certainly not one-sided. MDA staff lauded the Indonesian team for a workshop they gave on earthquake response and preparedness, for which they have a great deal of experience.
"There's an earthquake almost every year in Indonesia," said Teddy Bunanta, a member of the Indonesian group and a seismic engineer who has acted as a consultant to many UN agencies.
"We worked with the Israelis on preparedness for such an event, because they have the means and the system to accommodate such a response, but need to work on getting them ready."
Amid the flash of cameras and smiling faces, however, lies a relationship that has been slowly built over a number of years between Aryono and Steve Stein, an Israeli businessman who has worked through back channels within Israel and Indonesia to facilitate this sort of exchange.
"The most important thing is that 23 Indonesians came to Israel to learn how to save lives from an organization like MDA," Stein said. "They were so impressed with the country, and all the development here, their heads were spinning, they even told me they were confused."
Stein explained that before they arrived in Israel, the Indonesians had a distinct impression of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; their image of the Jewish state fashioned by Al-Jazeera or other negative representations from the greater Muslim world.
"Suddenly they're here," Stein said, "and their eyes are lit up, they're looking around, and they see that there's no war going on throughout the country, it's safe. They also saw the holy sites in Jerusalem and the respect given to all religions. That impressed them very much."
The Indonesians were even taken to Sakhnin in the Galilee, to tour the MDA station there and pray in a local mosque.
"They couldn't believe there was an MDA station funded by English Jews in an Arab village in the Galilee," Stein said. "All their impressions of Israel changed, they're seeing all these things happening, and then they're sitting in Tel Aviv eating humous. It was basically surreal."
But Stein stressed that the doctors and paramedics were most impressed with the emergency medical training they received, and were enthusiastic to return home and implement what they had learned.
"Some of them are planning on coming back," he said.
But to say the exchange was a success is only half of the story. The sociopolitical ramifications of such a venture rang loudly for both the Israelis and the Indonesians.
Everyone in attendance last week was aware of what the meeting meant for Israeli relations in the Muslim world, and although few said it, some expressed it with especially clear words.
"When there are people-to-people interactions, and personal relationships being built," said Aryono, "things start happening. This is how you make peace. As soon as politics get involved and politicians come into the picture, it all falls apart."
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>