The 2012 Muslim Jewish Conference: Muslims Like Gefilte Fish, Too

How does a Muslim celebrate Ramadan in Las Vegas?

This was just one of the many questions addressed at the 2012 Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) held in Bratislava, Slovakia last week. The MJC is an annual intercultural/interreligious symposium targeting young future leaders from several sectors to encourage the exchange of ideas and promote better relations. Based out of Vienna, Austria, this year’s conference included approximately 100 participants from thirty-seven countries, taking part in an intense dialogue spanning a week of lectures, workshops, and trips around the city.

Here we are, with all our passports!

The program included a truly diverse and unique group of people: an Indian man championing women’s rights, a Jordanian diplomat, a Palestinian puppeteer from Jaffa, a Pakistani journalist who went to cadet school in Lahore, a Libyan PhD candidate studying sustainable development in Switzerland with the intention of returning to his native Benghazi to help rebuild infrastructure following the Arab Spring. There were Muslim participants who were attending the conference in spite of threats to their personal safety back home and they should be commended.

As an orthodox Jew who grew up in the Washington DC area before immigrating to Israel as a teenager, I would have been happy to talk about minority identity or family dynamics. As an analyst working in the security field, I found myself answering a slew of questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict instead. (By the way, I work in the private sector – and I stress this because of hysteria-fueled rumors that I came to bust up the conference as some kind of bad-ass undercover agent from the Israeli government). I was actually happy to share my views on the conflict when I realized that many of the Jewish participants had opinions that differed from my own. I wanted to make sure that a more balanced perspective of Israel would be provided to the many Muslim participants who would be returning to their respective countries with the information they gathered at this conference. For several of these Muslims, it was their first time even meeting a Jew.

The bad ass Israeli delegation – We made a good impression, right?

One of the preliminary “icebreaker” exercises included Jews and Muslims making lists of stereotypes about each other and then sharing them in the auditorium. The list of Jewish stereotypes included: we’re aggressive, we’re obnoxious with money, we complain a lot, we have high sex drives, we’re very educated, we read a lot of books, and we have overbearing mothers.

A Muslim woman sitting nearby gave me a sympathetic, apologetic look. I just shrugged. The list seemed pretty accurate to me.

Other intercultural highlights of the conference:

– Watching Muslims try gefilte fish for the first time
– Teaching Pakistanis how to sing in Yiddish
– Jewish boys trying on the hijab

Morocco meets Libya

As much fun as I had meeting new people and hearing their stories, I have to admit I was a little cynical attending such an event. I’m not really big on public displays of emotion, spontaneous hugs, and gushiness. I’m also not a big fan of the term “peace” in the framework of the Middle East conflict because I think it’s unrealistic and thus dangerous to be focused on an unattainable goal. It also occurred to me that many of the Muslims attending this event were coming from the top 1% elite of their respective countries and therefore did not represent the average view of their fellow citizens.

But by the end of the week-long conference, I saw the real value of holding such an event. As educated leaders of their communities, these participants are positioned to make decisions in the future that can have a positive impact on the trajectory of Muslim-Jewish relations. For the Muslim participants who had never met a Jew before, just recognizing that human element on the other side was substantial. (The same applied to the Jews, too, of course.) This long-term trickle down effect of influence is difficult to quantify, but it is a great starting point for improvements. We are living in an era where soft power is becoming increasingly more important in the context of asymmetric conflicts and this is where developing the cultural milieu comes to play.

Working in the security field, I see again and again that there is a problem with Muslim extremists dominating the discourse in international relations, and so oftentimes it’s hard to discern the voices of the moderates. Moreover, there are extremists who present themselves as the moderates, further complicating the dialogue. To say that the Muslim world is monolithic is inaccurate and unsophisticated. There are voices yet to be heard and as Jews interested in the future welfare of Israel we have a duty to encourage these connections.


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