Having attended the 2013 MJC in Sarajevo, and being inspired to co-develop a Muslim Jewish Forum at my university, I was eager to join the 2014 conference in Vienna as part of the core team and develop my inter- as well as intra-faith experience. I soon learnt that coordinating and executing the MJC isn't easy or glamorous - and greeting 100 different participants with 100 different needs was daunting. At some points, amid the chaos, I honestly wondered why the team members volunteered their time, energy or holiday allowance to return year after year. But I soon realised that no team meant no MJC, and you only have to reflect on the last six months to see how disastrous that would be.
The conference followed intense threats to religious freedom, such as the recent ban on religious slaughter in Denmark as well as the far-right's shameful resurgence across the European Union. Communities were grieving over murderous attacks at Jewish and Muslim institutions, they were reeling over the synagogues and Islamic cultural centres torched, and they were sickened by the desecration of their religious cemeteries. Social media was again used to launch anonymous attacks and hate speech. As conflicts raged across the Middle East - from Iraq to Israel - issues affecting Muslim and Jewish communities were ablaze. But there was MJC. Still scheduled, still receiving applications, and still striving to repair the world that had become ignited with hatred.
Whilst it may have been to the frustration of some participants, the schedule was updated daily so that we could make use of every second and offer unique opportunities - such as inviting Helga Kinsky-Pollack to recount her time in Auschwitz. Allowances also needed to be made for the existential challenges we are trying to work against, including a mosque visit being cancelled (and then rearranged) due to Islamophobic threats made against it just as we were on our way. The last minute changes gave rise to magical prayer sessions which educated 'the other' on shared rituals and ways of connecting to a Divine strength, community or heritage. At the heart of all our moments of confusion was the intention to offer an ambitious, daring and unforgettable week. And that was certainly achieved.
Several participants had attempted to raise the Israeli and Palestinian conflict through our MJC Facebook group before the conference, and thankfully the team encouraged participants to not approach controversial issues online, without even meeting or building a foundation through our trained facilitators. From my perspective, it simply was not an option to ignore the impact of the conflict on individuals, after all, it remains one of the greatest barriers facing Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Despite being an apolitical organization, MJC took the difficult decision to address the conflict, and to make it part of the larger conversation, by inviting Combatants for Peace as guest speakers.
On a basic level, I think this offered many Jewish participants an interesting opportunity to hear the Palestinian narrative of dispossession, while challenging Muslim participants who may perceive Israelis as being resistant to peace, or as a homogenous population. I also can't say that I agreed entirely with the views on Israel and Palestine presented by the guests, but I absolutely saw the merit in showing how a situation of non-communication can be transformed into one of active dialogue and then cooperation. This was the epitome of my interpretation of the word dialogue - reaching a point where you can share, listen and understand each other's narrative without agreement, or even asserting or negotiating your own views.
A defining feature of MJC is its commitment to genocide awareness and education, and this year we reflected on the MJC 2013 trip to Srebrenica, invited a Shoah survivor as a guest speaker, and visited Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Needless to say, the Shoah is a deeply held pain for many Jewish youths; passed down from grandparents who may have escaped or survived the unimaginable. It was touching to hear some Jewish participants share their family's journey of survival with Muslims from Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Turkey - some of whom had very little exposure to the genocide - and offer a personal narrative to humanise a number that can't possibly be envisaged. Visiting Mauthausen concentration camp with MJC was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, I felt my soul tremble as we stood together and recited the Islamic and Jewish prayers for the dead. In a space where countless lives were reduced to dust, it was so moving to see a history of destruction transform into a future with the potential for so much understanding, compassion and interconnectedness.
The three greatest strengths of the conference lie in its high calibre of participants, its international volunteers and the sheer generosity of donors who fully understand the need for MJC to remain independent and free of external agendas. Our 2014 team couldn't have been more supportive and inspirational, they were there to offer reassurance (and even cake!) when challenges or tensions arose. This isn't limited to the training days or actual week, but even when we are faced with conflict in our own communities for fiercely striving for peace and understanding - it is our MJC team members at the other end of a WhatsApp message or Skype call.
It is impossible to describe the depth of conversations you have at the conference and the scope for change you see. The hardest issues are confronted and most sacred of narratives shared over seven days in a way that is not possible for many at 'home' - a word which, for me at least, embodies a network of relationships around the world than a physical construct. MJC is our community because we have recognised that there is more to a relationship than agreements, and disagreements present an opportunity to learn, understand and eventually overcome differences or divisions.
Our 2014 participants returned to 38 different countries around the world with one united vision and joined our growing community of 500 activists. Transformed from participants to activists, they will be initiating creative and diverse interfaith projects to bridge communities in their hometowns.
With the conclusion of MJC 2014, the team has already started working on MJC 2015, with Berlin as a possible host city, and I unreservedly recommend that Jewish and Muslim students in the UK apply when further information is released next year.
Muslim Jewish Conference
YouTube video of MJC 2014 visit to Mauthausen Concentration Camp