I first met Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew, at an AJC conference in 2009 as he was starting the first Muslim Jewish Conference. He had a vision of bringing young Jews and Muslims, specifically those younger than 35, from around the world together for their own conference. The format would be committees producing their own domestic projects, eventually leading to a network of Muslims and Jews spanning the globe.
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I thought Ilja was well intentioned but nuts, but I owed it to him as a friend to come, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak at the 7th annual MJC, held in Berlin this past week.
This year’s conference brought together more than one hundred participants from 33 countries. America, Israel and Pakistan seemed to have the most representatives, with a good sprinkling of Jews and Muslims from Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. The conference appeared to be evenly split between gender and religious lines, with a dozen of so participants wearing headscarves or kippot.
The week-long conference mainly focused on dividing participants into committees, where the conference split into seven working grounds with the hope of getting a deep understanding on big issues of identity, culture and rights. The conference’s final product was a projects committee that would come up with practical initiatives to be deployed in one’s home community, ranging from educational curriculums for schools to action think tanks aimed at dealing with common social issues in their respective local communities.
The main criticisms of gatherings like this are that they reach those who are already primed to meet, they avoid difficult issues and they don’t have a sustainable mechanism to ensure the conversation continues after the event. The MJC, however, did bring together Israelis and Pakistanis who otherwise could never meet and there was indeed some diversity in the room. The conference did try to offer ways for the members to get to grips with Israel and Palestine and speak about the real fear of the other in a group sense. Finally, on the core issue of being more then a conference, the vision of the MJC is to be a Muslim-Jewish global agency, establishing projects and programs across a world dealing with mass migration.
Having been around the block at different peace/cross cultural/interreligious conferences, the Muslim Jewish Conference has done one thing very well: It has managed to get a committed group of young activists from a range of countries that otherwise would never have come together to speak about important topics. I have been to dozens of conferences where I am the youngest person by a decade. MJC has cracked the code at getting younger community leaders engaged and others should look to them as an example for recruitment.
There is something cosmically discombobulating about doing a Muslim-Jewish conference in Berlin. I get a queasy feeling when I go to the German capital. I was there last year on a work trip and had an emotional response that has no rational explanation. A feeling of impending doom mixed with anger. I asked a friend who, like me, is a grandchild of survivors and they had also found it very hard to enjoy the city.
The executioner of Jewish Europe, the home of an Israeli Diaspora and a growing Turkish-Muslim population, Germany has now hosted a gathering of over a hundred passionate Muslims and Jews who want to help their civilizations come to terms with one another.
Like any civic initiative, the MJC alone cannot alone fix the stereotypes in their own countries of the other, but they are the pioneers in draining the swamps of hate that fuel the conspiracies and mistrust that make true Muslim-Jewish relationships all but impossible.