“Bridging the Divide in Sarajevo” by Alana Baranov

The ancient, stirring words of kaddish drift slowly across the stark cemetery, as a group of 100 young Jews and Muslims from 39 countries taking part in the Muslim-Jewish Conference (MJC) pray and weep together for all those lost in the genocide in Srebrenica. This scene echoes that of a previous MJC visit to Babi Yar in 2011, where Muslim prayers were recited in memory of the massacred Jews.
Embodying the phrase, “your pain is our pain”, the prayers for the genocides which have scarred two separate communities, connect them in profound ways, one of the main goals of the MJC which I was privileged to attend last week for the World Jewish Congress.

The MJC, a registered non-profit and grassroots organisations based in Vienna, was first established in 2009 by young visionary Ilja Sichrovsky. Its first conference took place in 2010 with a mere handful of volunteers hoping “to provide the next generation with a learning experience for life and a positive outlook for establishing intercultural relations and sustaining MuslimJewish partnerships”. By creating a “safe space” for the exchange of personal experiences and breaking down stereotypes, the MJC unites participants from across racial, religious and gender divides to unite against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Subsequent conferences have attracted more than 300 young leaders from 50 countries and were held in varied locales including Kiev, Ukraine and Bratislava, Slovakia.

With each passing year the MJC has grown in size, scope and savvy. The hundreds of applicants to the conference this year were chosen not only those with an important perspective to share, but also individuals who are willing to listen to the opinions of others. A careful balance of both Jews and Muslims, as well as a healthy mixture of religious and secular, is carefully maintained.

This year’s MJC was convened in the symbolic “Jerusalem of Europe” – Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A city which was an example of multiculturalism and religious tolerance for centuries has been deeply scarred by some of the worst war crimes and acts of violence in modern times. The struggles of Sarajevo to overcome this fractured and hateful past are a reflected in the recent genocide,
war and ethnic tensions – the perfect place for lessons of the past to be put into practice in interfaith relations.

Over five days of sustained dialogue, the participants and future opinion-makers sought to make the seemingly impossible possible by defying the accepted notions of their elders on the futility of interfaith discussions. These young people, many of whom faced opposition from family and friends back home for their involvement with the “other side”, are determined to forge a future of greater peace and understanding. With a programme that included visits to the Ashkenazi Synagogue and various mosques across Sarajevo, to a day spent in Srebrenica for interfaith prayers for genocide
victims, the MJC 2013 was intense and productive.

The list of guest speakers included respected rabbis and imams as well as Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. Participants took advantage of the opportunity to engage with other young people in an open and honest dialogue with the “other side” which is usually much more difficult in their home nations. Participants were organised into various committees, examining topics ranging from “Gender and Religion”, “Education and Historical Narratives”, “Hate Speech”, to “Conflict Transformation”. The proposed projects emerging from these committees set the agenda for the coming year and keep participants in touch and engaging with each other after the event.

One of the surprising outcomes of the conference was the plethora of intrafaith conversations which took place alongside the interfaith debates – both of which will have an impact on participants and
the communities that they return home to. Although the success of the MJC can be hard to quantify, the very fact that young Muslims and Jews from across the globe take the time and expense to journey to Sarajevo to overcome the barriers between their respective communities and build ties of friendship, speaks volumes about their belief in this initiative.

The attendance of a few South Africans, both Jewish and Muslim, gave the MJC a unique insight into the state of Muslim-Jewish relations in our country and allowed us to forge a plan for the future. The attendees of the MJC are not simply the leaders of tomorrow, but are the change-makers of their communities and countries today.

– Alana Baranov, South Africa; This post appeared as an Op-Ed piece on Page 7 of the South African Jewish Report published July 12, 2013, and accessible here.
Photo Courtesy: Daniel Shaked

MJC does not support any political agenda and would like to emphasize that these posts reflect personal views of participants that wrote about their individual experience at an MJC conference.