For the second consecutive year, the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) was held in the German capital, Berlin, with a particular presence of countries such as the US, Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, Tunisia, Morocco and Germany making up the largest delegations representing young people from civil society, academia, and the arts and culture fields.
Since its inception in 2009, the non profit organization has been running thanks to the generous support of international figures such as former US president, Bill Clinton, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr.Frank-Walter Steinmeier; Dr. Mustafa Cerić, Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, , Moroccan king advisor, Andrey Azoulay, among others who lent their support to the conference.
The leitmotiv of “promoting interfaith dialogue” in the face of the challenges of “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism” was a recurrent theme for this year’s edition of the Austrian non-profit organization, founded seven years ago by Ilja Sichrovsky.
With some 142 participants from over 30 countries during the 7th edition of the interfaith meeting of Muslims and Jews from across the world, that took place between the 7th and 14th of August. This year, they were also joined by unaffiliated people from the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist faiths as well as agnostics and atheists.
Headquartered in the Austrian capital, Vienna, its founder, Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew, MJC represented for him a dream to bridge the gap between two faiths, communities, nations that have come at odds with each other especially since the beginning of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the early 20th century.
Through interactive sessions of introductions to Islam and Judaism interfaith, intra-faith discussions, panel on Israel and Palestine (with vivid stories of a Palestinian and an Israeli suffering and pain of loss of loved ones), memorial visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Juma’ah and Shabbat prayers (with interfaith celebrations of Tisha Be’av), including visits to a Berlin Synagogue, the conference brought together communities through diverse activities and knit-close interactions with one another.
Despite its focus on Muslims and Jews represented during the conference, other non-affiliated groups, belonging to other religious groups, including from different Christian denominations, Buddhists, Hindus and non religious including agnostics and atheists have attended the conference, which prompted some to question the “appropriateness” of the term « Muslim-Jewish » as a title for the conference.
The Muslim Jewish Conference has become the mecca for Jewish and Muslim young people from around the world, from different communities, racial, social, political and secual backgrounds, making it more diverse than the strict division of such communities. With rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across the world, participants were able to share their different experiences, often painful ones of racism for simply being a Jew or a Muslim.
Muslim-Jewish Conference, « a second home » :
“Building a safe space without a (hidden) agenda” is the motto that Ilja Sichrovsky, founder and Secretary General of MJC, keeps repeating when describing the rationale behind the establishment of the Muslim Jewish Conference. In this conference, the aim was that “people agree to disagree”, stressed Sichrovsky.
With activities such as breaking stereotypes in a brutal yet funny way to debunk certain myths about different religious groups made participants feel comfortable with one another, the feeling of hostility slowly dissipating with such an ice breaker, getting to know about each other.
“MJC to me is a second home and the place I maybe feel most comfortable at,” said Yedidya Paris, a 31-year old Israeli participant from Tel Aviv, while highlighting the conference participants as being like a family members for him. In a world that is plagued with xenophobia and hostility towards anyone who is different, MJC helped him sharpen his curiosity about Muslim people, and getting to appreciate them.
This unique experience of being immersed in a week “full of inspiring conversations” where taboos in discussions are broken, including religion, identities and diving deep into personal stories, and challenges of life in general of being a Jew or Muslim in their different identity manifestations.
From « Us and Them » to « United Despite Differences » : empathy in joy and pain :
The MJC provided a unique opportunity for participants to attempt at “humanizing, empathizing and talking” to and with the “Other”, by putting a face to what one considers as « the enemy », was the sacred mission behind the forum.
Maroua Charkaoui, a 23 year-old Moroccan student, who is attending the conference for the second time (the first one being in 2015), credits the conference an experience for enabling her to open up to other cultures and respect of the « Other » « whom we only used to hear about or hear some of their views in media, talking face to face and discussing issues and coming up with solutions together, » she explained her work with her committee on power, religion and human rights.
In Berlin, the interfaith initiative of « Salam-Shalom Initiative », run by two young Germans : Anja Nana Saleh a Muslim and a Jew, Armin Langer, provided a free space for both communities to interact without fear. The “Salaam-Shalom Initiative » was featured during the conference, with founders presenting their case during an interactive workshop, where they showcased in a video project of some of their interfaith and intercultural activities in Berlin in particular as well as across Germany, helping ease the tensions between communities with regards to rising Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism, anti-refugee sentiment, Far Right threats and the effect of the conflict in the Middle East on Muslim-Jewish relations, building channels of understanding and meeting between them.
Sharing stories of pain and suffering, empathizing with the « Other » :
Some of the highlights of the conference included the emotional visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial in Orianenburg (an hour drive from Berlin) where the participants were overwhelmed by feelings of pain and sadness at the level of human atrocities, especially for those who were visiting the place for the first time, while listening to the guide’s accounts of the atrocities committed on Jewish prisoners.
The experience was culminated by a communal readings from the Torah and the Quran for the blessing of the souls of those who perished in the camp. Muslim and Jewish participants were joined in the same feeling of pain and suffering, comforting one another during the emotional rememberance ceremony at Sachsenhausen, where 200 Muslims were also murdered during its 9-year activity as a Nazi concentration camp (1936-1945).
Muslim and Jewish participants also joined together during Jumuah paryers (with mixed congregations), the celebration of Tisha Be’Av and its spiritual meaning to reconnect with one’s history of pain, memory of suffering of exile and « the return to the land of Israel as the final deliverance ».
Co-existence against all odds :
But behind the “rosy” picture of interfaith dialogue lies beneath its murky surface the taboo, the almost exclusively unique subject of contention between Muslims and Jews, an eternal conflict that engulfed the whole Middle East in the vicious circle of violence, hatred, boycott and occupation ; « conflict », a term Yedidya Paris, and Boaz Morag Wolmark, 31, both from Tel Aviv, find quite “unsettling” for its “being one-sided” account of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the emphasis on discussing the occupation, rather than the conflict, which is “only a result of the century old conflict”, according to Paris.
As a matter of fact, the discussion of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually reduced to the question of the occupation, according to Paris, thus becoming the elephant in the room of a much more complex reality on the ground. His opinion was shared by his committee fellow Wolmark, asserting the difficulty of engaging in an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Jews “without getting to the main clash between the two religions – the conflict,” regretting that the discussion was one sided, with “Israel is occupying the West Bank and a Palestinian State should be established”, without expressing different opinions which many in the Israeli public hold (and even some Palestinians), according to him.
“Such an approach is counter-productive and its consequences are two-fold:, not addressing the core problem,which is the actual conflict between the two sides and, not acknowledging the Israeli narrative of the conflict, resulting in Jews being on the defensive”, explains Paris.
The passion stemming from some of the participants at MJC when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands in stark contrast to the taciturn, composed attitude of Wolmark, whose dispassionate depiction of the conflict and the history of the conflict as well as the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust gives a whole new perspective to a narrative that is “not taught in school”, he confesses.
Throughout the conference, the Berlin hotel witnessed up all night heated debates between Palestinian and Israeli participants to the curiosity of the other participants, while being confused, at the level of anger and frustration from both sides, with no doublespeak, just “dughri” in the words of Wolmark, all the time playing down the seriousness of the violence that could be felt from their heated discussions.
“As an Israeli (and Middle Eastern) we tend to say things as they are, sometimes even in your face : “dughri”, an Arabic word also used in Israel that says straight up things as they are, », Wolmark contended, adding that he enjoyed debating with Palestinians « talking about everything and everything.”, regretting that many participants were too polite to speak up their minds.
Wolmark’s feeling of frustration was that there was not enough “safe space” for him and like-minded self-identified Zionist Israelis, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which oftentimes is compounded, confused with the Arab-Israeli conflict, inextricably linked to a century long history of wars, displacement, occupation, terrorism, frustration and hopelessness ; to such an extent the protracted conflict does not need an event such as the Muslim-Jewish conference or any other inter-faith dialogue events to alleviate the pains of Palestinians, as one Palestinian participant from Gaza stated. This latter has been attending the conference for the fourth time and felt nothing has changed in the region.
He spoke bitterly about his inability to visit his family in blockaded Gaza -while living in Europe- for the last five years, yet he managed to discuss with one Israeli participant issues, such as BDS (Boycott Divestment, Sanctions), while differing on its effectiveness to end the conflict.
His frustration was echoed by another Palestinian participant from Jerusalem, whose stance on occupation was as strong as his yearning for more fair and equal treatment as his fellow Jewish neighbors, before even thinking about the two-state solution as an end to the conflict. “That is all I am asking for equality and justice”, he reiterated.
Art as a message of reconciliation and hope :
When interfaith dialogue brings arts to the core of the discussion, it succeeds in making room for more creative ideas to share. With some artists from as far as Israel, the US, Tunisia, and Brazil, participants showcased their different artistic talents from musicians, to photographers and singers.
Youssef Ben Soltane, a 29-year old Tunisian dentist living in Paris, a wine educator ; also a passionate oenologist, and a worldly artist, who enjoys life and traveled throughout Europe was a participant in the arts and culture committee.
Recounting his experience of « belonging to several communities rather than one » is what led Ben Soltane to become involved in different types of projects, including voluneering work as a dentist providing oral health outreach in remote areas of Tunisia, fundraising for many charity projects benefiting schools and disadvantaged communities in Tunisia.
Whilst living abroad, he got involved in an interfaith art performance with Jewish artists in Budapest where he lived in the Jewish neighborhood of the Hunagrian capital, made many Jewish friends and « felt welcomed in their community, despite the moments where people reacted negatively to the fact that I was an Arab », he explained.
With similar upbeat feelings about intercultural and interfaith dialogue to Ben Soltane, Charkaoui stronlgly believes that such a dialogue is more than ever before necessary for peace and mutual understanding, by sitting down and discussing religion and other issues freely.
What Next ?
While the MJC forum seems quite a utopia for some, a dream for others for a better world, it managed to open up free spaces for debate with no fear of being judged, shunned or ridiculed for being different, thinking differently. When participants went home, most expressed mixed feelings of euphoria, and perplexity, while « letting it sink in, process it » because it was overwhelming for most of them, in particular first time participants.
“It is one week where you don’t stop engaging in conversation without hearing the words – Game of Thrones or Pokemon Go,” joked Paris.