Far from the summer’s roiling Mideast conflicts, a record 99 participants from dozens of countries converged on Vienna last week for the Muslim-Jewish Conference’s fifth annual gathering.
From Pakistan to Iran and Gaza, only one of the conference’s 50 registered Muslim participants backed out at the last-minute, according to MJC founder and secretary-general Ilja Sichrovsky.
“The bravery of these participants is something we can take inspiration from,” Sichrovsky told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Vienna.
Despite just one cancellation, events in Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere affected most aspects of last week’s gathering, according to Sichrovsky.
Initially founded to be what he called “a cute little cozy dialogue project,” Sichrovsky’s MJC has since made space for thorny political issues, said the 31-year old activist.
“It’s not optional anymore that Muslims and Jews meet each other and speak,” said Sichrovsky.
“In the middle of the Gaza war, we had 99 Jews and Muslims debating these issues with no filtering, with no violence, and agreeing to disagree,” he said.
To address political tensions head-on, MJC brought in Combatants for Peace, a coalition of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who advocate non-violence. Through sharing their personal narratives, representatives aim to focus Israelis and Palestinians on “dialogue and reconciliation,” according to the group’s mission statement.
Offering the Palestinian viewpoint was Suliman al-Khatib, who – as a 12-year old – joined Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. After attacking two Israeli soldiers, al-Khatib spent more than a decade in prison. When his sentence ended in 1997, al-Khatib worked to co-found Combatants for Peace, whose projects include West Bank political theater and “resilience-building” activities.
To charges that al-Khatib’s group equates former terrorists with Israeli soldiers, Sichrovsky said there is more to the picture than meets the eye.
“Suliman spent more than a decade in Israeli prisons, where he learned Hebrew, studied the Holocaust, and participated in hunger strikes,” said Sichrovsky.
“Despite all this, he came out of prison against violence,” he said. “That is the message we were looking for and the thing that we were impressed by – that he came out of that experience and steered toward a new direction.”
When Mideast turmoil wasn’t front and center, MJC activities revolved around committees focused on Muslim-Jewish relations, with topics including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the media, conflict transformation, and gender in religion.
Participants visited a mosque and synagogue in Vienna, and also met with political and NGO leaders. The program’s emotional climax came during a tour of Mauthausen, one of the Nazis’ most notorious forced labor camps. There, participants chanted Jewish and Muslim mourning prayers to honor camp victims from throughout Europe.
“After several visits to places like Mauthausen, it becomes harder to experience these places and feel them,” said Sichrovsky.
“Through MJC, we visited Mauthausen last week and a participant who is an imam from Mosul [Iraq] led us in the Muslim prayers. Realizing he was honoring so many lives from so many places, I and others cried during the ceremony,” Sichrovsky said.
At past MJC gatherings, participants have visited Babi Yar – the Kiev ravine where the Nazis and collaborators murdered at least 34,000 Jews in one week – and, last year, Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosniaks were slaughtered during the Bosnian War. The process of Jews and Muslims encountering sites of genocide together has become an MJC hallmark.
Most participants study or work in fields related to international development or human rights, and many cite old-fashioned curiosity about “the other” as motivating their involvement.
MJC volunteer from Pakistan Osama Mahmood Khan participated in last year’s Sarajevo-based conference, and has since visited Jewish friends from MJC in South Africa. Khan is one of 40 MJC volunteers based in 25 countries.
“I had expected MJC to give me a reason to interact with other Jewish participants so that we could teach each other about our ways of life,” the 24-year-old participant told the Times of Israel.
Having studied electrical engineering in the US, Khan had met many Jews before MJC, but never in the context of intentional dialogue about divisive issues, he said.
“When I met the Jewish participants in Sarajevo, it did not take me long to realize that our similarities are much more powerful than our differences,” said Khan, who has served as MJC’s chief-of-staff since February.
“I must say it has been an honor to work with people spread out in over five continents,” he added. “The idea which most simply defines our goal is that we must talk to each other, and not just about each other,” said Khan.
As an Austrian Muslim born to Sudanese parents, MJC volunteer Nura Siddgi spent most of her life isolated from Vienna’s small Muslim community – or, as Siddgi said in an interview, “I grew up as a black Muslim in a white, Christian majority country, which definitely shaped me and my world view.”
Having joined MJC in 2012, Siddgi – who wrote her master’s thesis on the plight of Sudanese women – led this year’s admissions committee.
“Altogether, I see my work with MJC as anti-racism work,” said Siddgi. “The lesson must be that we can’t have another generation growing up with misconceptions and stereotypes defining the way we treat each other,” added the 26-year old activist.
‘I see my work with MJC as anti-racism work’
For its sixth conference next year, MJC plans to convene in Berlin, Germany, where Jewish and Muslim communities have expanded rapidly. In the spirit of last week’s Combatants for Peace seminar, MJC will host the Israel-based Parents Circle-Families Forum, made up of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the conflict, said Sichrovsky.
Between now and next August’s conference, Sichrovsky will fundraise from a variety of private donors, in keeping with his long-standing goal to remain “politically independent,” he said. Last week’s Jewish and Muslim participants will expand the network’s projects in their home countries, including short films, blogs and efforts to replicate MJC locally.
“We do not accept all the voices in the world telling us that we have no say in the future, and that it is impossible to live in harmony,” said Sichrovsky. “We do not accept that because MJC comes together each year and experiences it differently,” he added.