At the height of the war between Israel and Hamas, the Muslim-Jewish conference is gearing up for its fifth year of promoting interfaith understanding and cross-cultural dialogue among 140 young Muslims and Jews from 35 countries.Set to take place in Vienna from August 7 to 14, its stated goals are to engage young Muslims and Jews, leaders in their communities, to establish intercultural relations and sustaining inter-religious partnerships.And while the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not officially on the agenda, it is wrong to assume the conflict won’t be discussed.
“It’s sometimes a bit of a misunderstanding,” says MJC founder Ilja Sichrovsky in a Skype interview from Vienna, where he is setting up for the conference. “Because the fact that we don’t officially put it on the agenda makes a lot of people think that we don’t deal with it – which is, in my perspective, just a different way of going about it.”And this is not the first time the MJC has taken place during a time of heated regional tensions. Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident were polarizing events right before the first conference in 2010.But the MJC approach is to have participants focus on broad-ranging issues plaguing both religious groups. Participants are divided among committees that include discussions of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the media, gender and religion, conflict transformation, collective memory, and historical narratives and identity, to name a few.The committees are used as a safe and non-threatening space where people from extremely diverse cultures and countries can begin to relate to each other. Indeed, a sampling of the nationalities to be represented includes Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan.Sichrovsky says the goal of the committees is for participants to begin to relate to each other and talk about topics – to enable them to at some point not only agree, but possibly come up with joint projects. Then, Sichrovsky continues, it is during evening social events that people are given the freedom to touch upon hot-button issues, usually concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or different tensions in the region.“The amount of productivity these people show when talking about it in these environments – when they don’t have anybody else to convince, when it’s simply just them, very honestly exchanging their point of views – that’s usually the time where they can even come to a point where they agree to disagree, and keep on working on the issues they identified in the committees.”The popularity of the conference is steadily growing. The first conference in Vienna, in 2010, was run on a budget of €40,000 and had 60 participants from 35 countries. This year, there are 140 people coming to Vienna and the budget has increased to €107,000.Sichrovsky emphasizes that this jump in numbers illustrates how few and far between such opportunities are – not only for people from around the world, but for young Muslims and Jews specifically, to sit together without an agenda.“I think that is quite an indication of how important this issue is becoming in our time.”BUT A project like this is still viewed with skepticism.Sichrovsky says that when he first approached the Jewish community in his home city of Vienna to participate in the project, the response was cool. Five years on, and after successful conferences in Bosnia, Slovakia and Ukraine, he is happy to report the community is starting to come around. He points out that the project has gained a lot of support from international Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the European Union of Jewish Students and the World Jewish Congress – not to mention international leaders such as former US president Bill Clinton.The Muslim side has been less forthcoming – for many different reasons, Sichrovsky notes. “On our Muslim side, we do not have the same luxury of the staff side. We do have a lot of volunteers that help us, but we just don’t have anyone that can work on this full-time.”Sichrovsky is the only full-time employee of the project he started. “I think people need to understand that – and this is something I always like to stress – that what we’re doing, we have been doing with a budget of €250,000 over the last four years, which is simply an insult to a bank account.”With such a limited budget, he relies on an extremely dedicated staff of volunteers.In 2010, for the first conference, Sichrovsky had eight volunteers. Today, there are between 50 and 60 volunteers from more than 25 countries.“This is the real movement,” he says, joking that those leaving the conference are either “infected or cured.”“I think it’s very important to elevate inter-religious dialogue, interfaith dialogue and especially Muslim-Jewish relations to a different level and take it seriously enough to really get somewhere, also outside of Israel and Palestine.”Watching the activities of his former participants, Sichrovsky says he is overwhelmed with the impression the conference has left on them.“It’s almost impossible to get them back into any situation where they would fall back into these schematics of before; with racism, with Islamophobia, with anti-Semitism,” he says. “They are really a movement of now probably 100 to 120 people that went through this experience of organizing one of these conferences, who really are an ally for the rest of the time we know them.”And this also touches on the necessity of follow-up after such an intense meeting. Sichrovsky explains that with his limited staff and a lack of real financial support, the work being done to encourage and engage alumni is not where he would like it.“We are, at the moment, a project incubator and not a project implementation device,” he says.Alumni take it upon themselves to keep in touch, and Sichrovsky describes as “incredibly moving” the amount of interaction between former participants.For example, on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, and as tensions with Hamas were escalating quickly, a group of MJC alumni organized an Iftar break-fast in Jerusalem.“It becomes part of their lives,” he says.“This is something which is beautiful to watch from my point of view, because all of a sudden, ‘interfaith’ is part of them.”Something like this, Sichrovsky continues, is vindication against the critics, against those who say the opinions being shared on social media are just full of vitriol. “I see a difference between the people that attended the conference and those that didn’t, in the way they conduct themselves, even online,” Sichrovsky says.“They really leave as ambassadors of the cause, without us having to do much.”