Collective Memory Committee
Exploring the legacy of conflict in post-conflict societies
Introduced for the first time at the MJC, the Collective Memory committee focused on memory and remembrance in post-conflict societies, where participants from diverse national and cultural backgrounds had a chance to explore each other’s narratives of conflict.
Attending the MJC last year in Sarajevo left a huge impact on my understanding of how Muslims and Jews can work together to address challenges that are common to both the communities. Therefore, I was eager to contribute my own knowledge and experiences to Muslim and Jewish participants this year.
My work with the Missing Persons Institute in Bosnia played an instrumental role in my decision to chair the Collective Memory committee, as I have observed the repercussions of the War on Bosnian society up close. I now had the chance to share this experience with young Jews and Muslims who were coming together to learn about each other’s histories, identities and concerns in a safe space.
The sessions kicked off with a brief introduction of the definition of ‘collective memory’ and the importance of understanding how a nation is in part represented by the memorials it chooses to erect, or perhaps more significantly, what it chooses not to memorialize.
As the discussion proceeded, case studies from actual conflicts were introduced to the committee with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Somalia explored in greater depth by the participants. A large part of the presentations and discussion were focused on the Former Yugoslavia.
We also delved into the idea of religious identity and how it has been a major factor in the “otherization” of entire groups, resulting in conflicts with deadly consequences. The committee conducted a comparative analysis of collective memory of the Second World War and of the Bosnian War through presentations, documentaries and group discussions. Participants had the opportunity to learn about the Jasenovac camp during the Holocaust, and about the concentration camps set up during the Prijedor genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. This exercise proved quite effective, as participants were able to empathize with each other’s histories, and later felt safe enough to talk about collective memories within their own societies.
Over the next few days, Dan, the committee co-chair and an expert on conflicts, discussed in greater detail the cooperation of Muslim-Jewish communities during the wars in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Somalia.
The participants were then asked to give presentations on collective memories within their own families, which led us to talk also about memories of conflict in Pakistan, Morocco, Israel, Germany and the United States.
Participants from Pakistan presented collective memories about the Partition of 1947, when the British colony of India was divided into two independent states of India and Pakistan, resulting in a mass exodus of people moving across the borders of the new states. The two nations share a volatile history since their independence, having fought three full-scale wars. The issue of Kashmir still divides the region and continues to hinder lasting peace between the two countries.
The Jewish participants presented memories of their families related to the Holocaust. One participant explained how she came up with the idea of filming her grandmother and asking her about certain items in her home, and the historical significance of each item for her grandmother. These personal stories further helped participants in breaking down barriers of communication and ideas.
Another important aspect for this Committee was the visit to the Mathausen concentration camp, where more than 150,000 people were reportedly killed under the Nazi rule. For many Muslim participants, this was the first time they were visiting a concentration camp, and they were able to appreciate more fully the atrocities carried out during the Second World War. Moreover, this visit highlighted to the participants how memorialization can be used as a tool for collective memory, as each memorial at Mauthausen paid tribute to victims of a different nationality.
One of the last sessions addressed the then on-going Palestine-Israel war, where the committee discussed how media plays an instrumental role in developing collective memories of groups, and how media reports should be analyzed to get the whole story.
We ended the committee on a musical note, sharing songs from the Balkans that demonstrated how music can be used to sometimes remember unity before the war, at others times to remember shared trauma, and sometimes to reunite and reclaim one’s identity. The participants had the opportunity to listen and analyze the song “Fildzan viska” by Bosnian band “Zabranjeno Pusenje”.
For me personally, the entire experience was truly enlightening – especially learning about the Kashmir issue and the history and struggle of American Jews. Hopefully, the participants feel the way and would return to their home communities with a greater understanding of the “other” and with a message of mutual respect and peace.
Co-chair of the Collective Memory Committee
Muslim Jewish Conference 2014