Reflections on Muslim-Jewish Dialogue in a Time of Darkness by Alexander Marcus

It’s not our job to steer the discussion away from difficult topics. It’s not our job to avoid confrontation, or to keep everything pleasant all the time. Confrontation is healthy, it’s necessary for what we are trying to do. We can’t suppress anger, and we shouldn’t want to. If anger is suppressed it doesn’t somehow disappear, it just remains unacknowledged. It’s OK if someone even leaves the room in anger… as long as they come back eventually.”

This was the critical feedback we received from Ben Rosen, Muslim Jewish Conference Program Director and a Toronto psychiatrist, as the committee chairs were concluding our second day of preparatory training before the 2014 Muslim Jewish Conference two weeks ago. As practice for facilitating difficult conversations we had just conducted a role-playing exercise, portraying a committee session spiraling out of control. The majority of us were instructed to be instigators, propelling drama through exaggeration and obstinacy, while three members of our group facilitated the mock-discussion and attempted to restore civility. The chosen topic? The conflict in Israel and Gaza, of course.

In under a minute, words like “genocide” and “anti-Semite” were flying across the room. Within three minutes, the stated objectives of the Muslim Jewish Conference were themselves being scrutinized and challenged. Arguments became more emotional, less specific to the topic at hand. The line between real and fake accusations seemed blurrier. Finally, after one of the principal inciters “decided” to storm out to take a smoke break, the activity was called to a close.

It had been cathartic in a way. Our ability to play-act such a conversation was itself a testament to the depth of our trust in one another, and to the strength of our shared commitment to the Muslim Jewish Conference and its mission. But the activity had also invited us to articulate and embody some of our greatest fears—that the mission we were taking on was full of so many possible pitfalls, that discussion would be too emotionally charged and too multifaceted to manage.

As a facilitator of a new committee on “Power & Religion,” my co-chair, Yunus, and I were especially concerned about the potentially volatile nature of our proposed discussions. We had specifically conceived our committee as a space within the Muslim Jewish Conference for addressing those issues which would inevitably arise within other committees and settings, but which we would determine to tackle head-on. The idea was that together we could cultivate a basic knowledge of our respective religious discourses, and an understanding of each other’s experiences, commitments, and motivations. With this foundation we hoped to provide a forum for participants to engage with one another’s opinions and concerns on a variety of contentious issues, and for the group itself to become a resource for the conference at large. Finally, we hoped that the experience would provide participants with useful skills and perspectives for their return to their home communities.

Happily, our discussions never reached the level of rancor that we had dreaded during the training exercise. The depth of conversation, and the level of respect that participants displayed for one another, was truly remarkable. The wide spectrum of backgrounds and opinions allowed for a certain balance and harmony, which made the discussions dynamic and fruitful. The committee included participants offering perspectives from places as diverse as South Africa, Pakistan, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey, Australia, Montenegro, the United States, Hungary, Iraq, Austria, and Serbia.

As group members became increasingly comfortable with one another during the final sessions, the conversations became even richer. Participants drew impromptu maps of Pakistan and Israel/Palestine to clarify the specifics of our discussions. We engaged in conversation about Islamophobia in Switzerland and Serbia, anti-Semitism in Hungary, marriage issues in Israel and Orthodox Jewish communities, blasphemy laws in Pakistan, and the racial dynamics that divide Muslim and Jewish communities in South Africa. Participants shared highly personal experiences and learned a great deal from one another. I learned a tremendous amount as well. I’ll restrict myself here to a few broadly-applicable insights gleaned from our discussions:

A shared vocabulary is critical. So often, seemingly recalcitrant disagreements would simply evaporate on their own as soon as the group paused to ask discussants to define their terms. Even when we were reasonably sure that everybody is using terminology in the same way, stopping to clarify precisely what we meant was an excellent way of refining our own positions, and allowing interlocutors to better appreciate where each of us were coming from.

Issues can and should be explained in good faith. When we say that a situation is too complicated to understand, what we often mean is that we are unwilling, or unable, to explain ourselves. A useful method for introducing somebody to a topic in a helpful way is to find a mutual frame of reference with which to compare and contrast. Strive to be objective, but acknowledge your biases. Highlight areas of dispute, and try to articulate opposing viewpoints as charitably as possible. Let the other person reach their own conclusions; you can’t control that anyway.

Our histories are wholly intertwined, as is our present and future. Narratives of perpetual conflict are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. I do not mean simply that we both trace our lineage to Abraham, and that we share many of the same scriptural stories and prophets. I mean also that Muslim and Jewish legal traditions have developed in a shared cultural environment, often in conversation with each other, and that our philosophical and theological outlooks are profoundly influenced by one other. And that we are today struggling with many of the same social, religious, and political issues. How we tell our stories will determine how we define our problems, which in turn affects how we search for solutions.

The challenges we face together require mutual cooperation. In Europe and North America, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, with aspects of both our traditions being challenged and outlawed (e.g. circumcision, head-coverings, Kosher and Halal slaughter)—and our communities subject to violence. And the Israel/Palestine conflict will not be resolved without the participation of the Arab and greater Muslim world. The entire region must work together to combat fundamentalism and authoritarianism, to nurture political, economic, and social stability, and to improve the situation of refugees from Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. We simply cannot overcome these challenges in isolation.

Our enemies are real. The world is full of people who desire no peace between Muslims and Jews, and certainly no dialogue or cooperation. I could name communities around the world—both Jewish and Muslim—that have actively discouraged people from attending the Muslim Jewish Conference. I could name governments that prevented aspiring participants from acquiring the necessary paperwork to attend. And I could list participants who stood up to actual intimidation because of their decision to join us (I won’t, for obvious reasons). Some of our most challenging conversations must take place within our own ranks, with our families and friend in our home communities.

Finally, and this may seem cliché, but our greatest enemy can often be ourselves—specifically, the self-imposed limits of our imagination. There’s no avoiding the obvious: the world is in pretty bad shape right now. Conflicts seem to be intractable, moderate voices are drowned out by extremists. Many of us feel stuck in a defensive posture, with reconciliation the farthest thing from our minds. Before the conference a friend asked me what the point of it all was. Didn’t I see that anything we were doing for a week in Vienna was insignificant compared with the larger forces of extremism, violence, and our inevitable resignation to the entropic status quo?

Before the conference I didn’t have a good answer. I too had been beaten down by the relentless horrors on the front page of the newspaper; by the endless, pointless squabbles on my Facebook feed. At the time I responded with something like, “What else would you have me do? Tell them to cancel the conference? We have to try to make some difference, even if it amounts to nothing.” Now that the 2014 Muslim Jewish Conference is completed I feel rejuvenated, and I think I have a better answer.

Dialogue, mutual understanding, and reconciliation are most urgently needed precisely at times like these, when the world seems bleakest. We need each other’s support. So many of us who yearn for peace and a better future wind up feeling isolated, even questioning our sanity. We are ridiculed for our supposed naiveté as the world descends further into violence. The Muslim Jewish Conference helped me remember that I am not alone, and that I am not insane. There are so many people from all over the world, coming from diverse backgrounds and experiences, who share my desires as well as my frustrations. Though our many differences and disagreements are real, our mutual vision is stronger. I want to thank the committee on Power & Religion, and the entire Muslim Jewish Conference, for reminding me of that.

Also, spiders.

Alexander Marcus
Co-chair of the Power & Religion Committee
PhD student in Religious Studies at Stanford University, specializing in Jewish Texts of Late Antiquity

Muslim Jewish Conference 2014