VIENNA – Like the First Zionist Congress, a Swiss hotel was where 30-year Ilja Sichrovsky’s vision for the Jewish future took off.
As an international development student in Vienna, Sichrovsky spent the better part of his 20s touring the world. From Mexico to Scotland, the Berlin-born activist developed a passion for international projects and networking.
In 2007, Sichrovsky participated in Harvard University’s Model United Nations conference. There, in a Geneva hotel room, he stumbled upon a new life path.
“A Muslim member of the Pakistani delegation asked if I was a Jew, and told me I was the first Jew he had met,” Sichrovsky recalled. “We were elite and well-read, but quickly realized we knew nothing about each other. After determining we were safe, we spent the whole night learning about each other.”
Following the encounter, Sichrovsky convened like-minded peers to change the state of Jewish-Muslim relations.
“We met again at the next Model UN conference,” Sichrovksy said. “We got in touch with other Muslim activists in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, and decided to start a project to provide that non-threatening experience we had on a more institutionalized level.”
Half a decade later, the Muslim-Jewish Conference (MJC) has engaged hundreds of young leaders from more than 50 countries. The “magical journey” undertaken by Sichrovsky includes high-profile annual gatherings, as well as year-round projects designed to build momentum.
‘We aim to tackle Islamophobia and anti-Semitism both within and outside our communities’
“There are no simple or quick solutions for problems such as non-communication and miscommunication,” according to MJC’s mission statement. “Therefore, MJC is determined to consistently exchange knowledge and experiences, share information about each other and nurture truthful interest in one another.”
Initial reaction to Sichrovsky’s vision was largely negative. Not only was he putting a promising academic career on hold, but he was doing it to pursue a utopian vision of mutual respect between Jews and Muslims. Vienna’s organized Jewish community was decidedly against the project, and Sichrovsky’s family and friends were only slightly less pessimistic.
“Most people said it would be doomed from the beginning,” Sichrovsky told a group of American Jewish visitors at Vienna’s posh Hotel Stefanie. “A very small minority of people supported me, but I was stubborn enough to go through with the idea. I’ve learned more in the last four years than in my whole life.”
Since the initial 2010 conference in Vienna, gatherings have been held in Kiev, Bratislava and – last month – Sarajevo. Delegates pay their own airfare, and 100 participants traveled from 38 countries this year –Yemen, Sudan, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, to name just six.
As MJC’s founder and secretary-general, Sichrovsky operates out of a home office equipped with every social media platform imaginable. Volunteer management, global diplomacy and public relations are three facets he’s worked to master, not to mention fundraising.
“Sometimes this work feels like a Google Maps system where the zoom feature is broken,” Sichrovsky said. “You go in and out, and in and out, constantly, and you’re not always in control.”
With each conference, Sichrovsky and his team of more than 30 volunteers hone their focus.
July’s gathering in Bosnia — the first held in a Muslim country — featured six content themes: conflict transformation; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in cinema; hate speech and its influence on public opinion; introductions to Judaism and Islam; gender and religion; and education and the effects of historical narratives.
“We create a safe platform for young members of both communities to talk to each other instead of about each other,” Sichrovsky said. “We’re bringing together young change-makers and creating a project incubator for their ideas.”
For most MJC participants, the experience is both intellectually and emotionally challenging. During the 2011 Kiev conference, participants visited and prayed at Babi Yar, where the Nazis and their collaborators murdered more than 33,000 Jews in two days.
Last month, participants visited Bosnia’s Srebrenica massacre site, where more than 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. Following the tour, participants offered prayers for the lives lost — the Muslim prayer, Sura al-Fatiha, was recited, followed by the Jewish prayer of Mourner’s Kaddish.
“The wounds are still raw, and people are still burying their dead,” said MJC participant Alexis Frankel. As director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) ACCESS program for young adults, Frankel accompanied a delegation of Jewish leaders to the conference.
“MJC is about Jews and Muslims talking to each other as peers and human beings,” Frankel said. “Our generation has a lot of value to add to the conversation, including through social media and informal ways of interacting with each other.”
In response to critics of Muslim-Jewish dialogue projects, Frankel references AJC’s work in Germany following World War II. Although some Jews reacted with outrage when AJC opened a Berlin office, the early groundwork was pivotal for Jewish-German relations and Germany’s ties to Israel, said Frankel.
“With Muslim-Jewish dialogue, we’re thinking of the long-term future of the Jewish people,” Frankel said. “Right now there is a need to step in to transform the relationship on the ground. We’re putting in the blood, sweat and tears at the beginning, in order to see the kind of world we want to live in.”
MJC is the only organization bringing young Jews and Muslims together on this scale and fostering their projects back home. The task of breaking down decades of learned stereotypes and prejudices is not easy, Sichrovsky said, but must take place for MJC to succeed.
In just a week of sessions, participants build safe space for each other’s voices, and lay the groundwork for ongoing cooperation.
Sichrovsky’s vision for MJC extends far beyond the annual conference. He’d like to duplicate the project in local contexts, as well as create a Muslim-Jewish agency to replicate regional best practices. Interfaith projects often exist as silos, with a need for increased networking between these communities, he said.
Following four conferences, MJC’s alumni network has expanded and diversified on several continents. Several alumni recently completed a short documentary called “Muslims & Jews: Saviors in the Darkest Moments of History,” to share compelling examples of Muslim-Jewish cooperation throughout history. Through a post-conference project called JaMGroupTherapy, participants work to dispel anti-Semitic and Islamophobic stereotypes using written and video testimonials.
‘Not many of my Muslim brothers and sisters know that there were Jews in Bosnia who sheltered Muslims’
“Not many of my Muslim brothers and sisters know that there were Jews in Bosnia who sheltered Muslims during the Balkans conflict,” said Lamees Hafeez, a Muslim MJC participant from the United Kingdom. “We aim to tackle Islamophobia and anti-Semitism both within and outside our communities, and to build a mutual understanding by dispelling myths and stereotypes.”
Though not focused on Israel, Sichrovsky and MJC are deeply informed by the Middle East as “the place where Muslims and Jews interact the most on a daily basis,” he said. Sichrovsky has visited Israel many times, where he enjoys the Tel Aviv beach as much as a day trip to Ramallah.
As an adolescent in Vienna, Sichrovsky was active in the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard). In his Jewish-Muslim work, Sichrovsky steers clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its well-known ability to polarize individuals at the expense of potential cooperation.
Sichrovsky’s father – Peter Sichrovsky – is one of Austria’s best-known Jews. A former scientist, journalist and politician, he faced years of censure for aligning himself with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party. For his son Ilja, Sichrovsky’s controversial legacy has both “helped and not helped,” depending on the interlocutor.
Fiercely independent, the younger Sichrovsky is reluctant to “sell out” for the sake of MJC’s financial security or alliances with powerful benefactors.
“We need financial support, but we don’t want to let anyone distract us from what we are actually doing,” Sichrovsky said. “People need to trust us and know we do what we do well. Navigating the politics within the Jewish and Muslim communities is a full-time job in itself, and we need to stay focused.”
The organized Jewish community should do more to incubate young leaders, Sichrovsky said.
“Young leaders need resources and the means to take risks,” he said. “We need to accept that mistakes will be made. But if these steps are not taken, they won’t become the people we want to see lead the next generation.”