10 Things I have learnt from the MJC 2014 by Manuella J. Kanter

Earlier this year, I had what might be described as a mid-degree crisis. My marks – though not a cause for concern – were mediocre, my enthusiasm was waning, I had no idea what to do after graduation and I did not have any CV-enhancing summer plans. I sent a frenzied stream of internship applications out, and when it came to justifying my decisions in interviews, I couldn’t hide my desperate lack of direction.

So in April, since I had no fabulously well-paid internship offers on the table, I decided to wildly seek any and every summer plan related to my extra-curricular interests and in doing so, I made the excellent decision to apply for the Muslim Jewish Conference.

The Muslim Jewish Conference, now in its 5th year, brought together 100 Muslims and Jews from around the world to talk to each other, not about each other. 38 countries were represented at this year’s conference, from Brazil and Canada to Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

In committee groups of around 15, we focused on one aspect of interfaith dialogue, be it ‘Gender and Religion’, ‘Collective Memory’ or ‘Conflict Transformation’, sharing ideas in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Outside of these sessions we went on conference outings to a synagogue, a mosque and the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial. Preconceptions were challenged, boundaries were broken and close friendships were formed.

And several iced-coffees and sachertortes later, I came back feeling imbued with a new sense of hope and purpose, and a sense that the week spent in Vienna had been the most important one in my life so far. There had been next to none of the anger that I had imagined would pervade such a conference happening in the middle of the Israel-Gaza conflict, despite the fact that diverse opinions were held by the participants. Discussions, even when tense, had been respectful and meaningful. I came back itching to pass on the magic of the conference, and I intend to set up a local Muslim-Jewish dialogue programme later this year.

Until then, I’d like to share 10 of the most important things I learnt from my week in Vienna (aside, of course from the fact that German for selfie is ‘selfie’).

  1. Aiming to persuade without building understanding is foolish, fruitless and part of the problem.
    I have to admit that I set out for Vienna ready to persuade: to persuade others of the things I thought were right, but also to persuade myself of the validity of my own position by hearing the same from others. I was a believer in the idea that a ‘good point, well made’ was enough to make someone come round to your way of thinking. But I soon realised that sometimes (and particularly with the most entrenched opinions) aiming to understand your conversation partner is more helpful than aiming to persuade, providing they do the same. It’s also a fair bit more challenging, but extremely refreshing.In the run-up to the conference, despite the fact I’d seen countless persuasive outbursts relating to Israel and Gaza on my Facebook newsfeed, I’d seen very little listening going on – no one asking questions of the other side or aiming to fully understand the opposing perspective. I suppose people feared validating an opinion they saw as incorrect or offensive by aiming to understand it. If both sides want their concerns heard and properly understood, but neither is willing to do so for the other, what hope is there? I’d like to see Facebook discussions where people exchange questions, aiming to understand rather than persuade.
  1. The difficult conversations are usually the most important ones to have.I hadn’t been in Vienna very long before I had my first ‘Uncomfortable Israel Conversation’. I’d been avoiding the subject, scared of having the kind of conversation I associated with feeling vulnerable, outnumbered and hated. But sure enough eventually I found myself in a conversation with a lovely young Sudanese woman, Eilaf, who held very one-sided views about Israel. Resisting every urge to end the conversation, I offered a few questions of clarification. Some of her answers made me tense up, some I found genuinely upsetting. But the whole conversation was conducted with the deepest respect and kindness, with not the slightest bit of hostility, as I had feared. The first ‘Uncomfortable Israel Conversation’ (UIC) went surprisingly well, and, running out of time before dinner, we ended it with a hug with the promise to schedule another UIC soon. In fact, in the next few days, Eilaf and I used every spare coffee break and coach journey to challenge ourselves to understand perspectives that had previously been anathema to each of us. Weeks after the conference and we’re still messaging each other, questioning to understand, not to persuade. Rather than making me afraid or lose hope, disagreements like these give me hope. It’s definitely the difficult conversations that are the most impactful.
  1. It’s possible to fundamentally disagree and get along well.
    One of my reservations about the conference was that all the Jews present would be extreme anti-Israel types, and that ‘Muslims and Jews getting along’ would mean ‘Muslims and Jews bonding through hate of Israel.’ Thankfully, the opinions represented were extremely diverse, and holding different views about the conflict – providing we expressed them with kindness – didn’t seem to be a barrier to having respectful in-depth discussions, friendly chats and genuinely getting along well.
  1. Talking in person beats talking online.
    Many of the wonderful people I met at the conference could have so easily been the kind of people on the other side of the angry Facebook discussions on my newsfeed. If we’d engaged over Facebook without meeting, none of us would have been motivated to fully understand each other, facing pressure from the rest of our community reading our discussions not to make any concessions to ‘the other side’. Too often, people blur hatred of an opinion to hatred of the human that holds that opinion. In person, it’s much harder to do that.
  1. Jews are incredibly diverse…
    It sounds naïve, but I had grown up with the assumption that the majority of Jews worldwide looked fairly similar to me. Presented with around 50 Jews from around the world, this assumption was ripped apart. And we weren’t just diverse in our appearances – our self-defined Jewish identities and attitudes to the global community varied immensely. Despite awareness that numbers were far smaller, I hadn’t really considered that the Jews of Prague or Budapest would be living or thinking any differently to the Jews of Golders Green. In reality, Jewish communities across the globe are very diverse.
  1. …but also wonderfully similar.There is something special in being able to walk into a tiny progressive shul in central Vienna on Shabbat morning and hear many of the same tunes being sung as back home in London. (The congregational size of 8 was slightly different to the 200+ I am used to, but the spirit of the service was near-identical.) As I sat down to kiddush with the community, I wondered how many people in the world were simultaneously eating Osem marble cake at that very moment, and for the first time felt like a member of the global Jewish community.
  1. We need to influence our own communities too, not let the extreme voices be the loudest.Jews and Muslims alike regularly commented at the conference that they only heard of the most extreme opinions from the other side, an effect exacerbated by media presentation. This breeds an ‘us vs them’ mentality, demonising the entire other side based on fringe opinions.Those of us holding moderate opinions need to lend our voices to influencing our own community: Jews criticising Jews who use Islamophobic rhetoric, and Muslims criticising Muslims who normalise anti-Semitism. Our voices count for more among our own community, so it’s our responsibility to put them to good use.
  1. Informal interfaith interaction is more important than formal.The best conversations at the conference were the ones that sprung up organically, while walking to ice-cream parlours, over dinner and during coffee breaks. My guard was down, I was relaxed, and there was no issue to be defended.Sometimes it was asking the most inconsequential questions out of curiosity that started a great conversation.(How do you put on a hijab? Do you like shawarma too?) These kinds of questions don’t themselves make Middle East peace, but they do build great relationships that are necessary as a starting point for harder conversations.
  1. A small group of people can provide a huge amount of hope.Sadly, there seem to be many, many more Jews and Muslims in the world who don’t get along well than those who do. Just 50 Jews and 50 Muslims who spent a week making positive steps towards improving our relationship might seem negligible in the scale of things.However, having experienced the magic of making those positive steps, I’m itching for more, and I hope all MJC graduates feel the same. The knock-on effect of the projects we run in our home communities should bring the same hope to an exponentially increasing number of people.And the geographical impact is huge – since its start, MJC participants have come to the conference from over 45 countries. It warms my heart to know there are Muslims and Jews all over the world who are motivated to build positive relationships.After initial relief following the Gaza ceasefire, I was overcome with sadness, feeling the global community had learnt nothing from the conflict and it was bound to repeat itself in a couple of years. I couldn’t see a fundamental change to attitudes on either side coming any time soon. Rather than turn to members of my own community for reassurance, I messaged Eilaf. It’s precisely because our opinions of the conflict differ that our respectful conversations about it comfort me so much.
  1. There is always more to learn.I was convinced before the conference that I was a tolerant, open-minded person. Yet I was surprised on a daily basis by the perspectives I hadn’t considered, and the experience was far more educational than I had anticipated. I learnt more in that one week in Vienna – about Islam, about Judaism and about myself – than in the 20 years of my life previous to it.And it’s even solved some of the lack of direction I had in my own life, by firmly convincing me that bringing religious communities together is not just an ‘extra-curricular interest’ of mine, it’s something I’m extremely passionate about.

However experienced or inexperienced you think you are when it comes to interfaith work, I highly recommend applying for next year’s Muslim Jewish Conference to experience it for yourself.

It’s a challenge, an inspiration, and most importantly, a whole lot of fun!

Manuella J. Kanter
Gender & Religion Committee

Muslim Jewish Conference 2014