Guest Post by Rebecca Keys
Since I returned home from a Muslim-Jewish dialogue conference in Vienna, friends have been asking me, is there hope? Can Muslims and Jews be friends, and perhaps even allies? Can we overcome the assumptions and stereotypes we have of each other and work together on areas of mutual concern? Is honest and transparent dialogue possible about difficult issues that touch on a raw nerve? How do we encounter the other’s narrative while remaining true to our values and without falling into moral equivalencies and apologetics? Especially at a time of rising global anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, are Muslim-Jewish relations possible at all?
The questions may be numerous and multilayered, overwhelming and complex, but the answer is surprisingly simple: Yes. And the proof is in the pudding.
This past week over 125 Muslims and Jews from 38 countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Morocco, and Israel, came together in Vienna for the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC), a week-long event to promote positive Muslim-Jewish relations, foster partnerships, and discuss ideas for projects on matters of mutual concern across the globe.
This was a profoundly radical encounter. After all, it isn’t every day that young Muslims and Jews sit down and talk to each other, instead of about each other. For some, it was their first time even meeting a person of the other faith—and this all took place during a particularly painful and tumultuous conflict in the Middle East.
Muslim and Jewish participants questioned, debated, shared, and listened during daily discussion sessions about the toughest issues that confront our two communities: Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; Collective Memory; Conflict Transformation; Gender and Politics; Politics, Power and Religion; and more. Since no one tiptoed around difficult subjects, the conversation wasn’t always easy. But the dialogue provided a long overdue opportunity to erode preconceived notions and assumption about Muslim and Jewish politics, culture, and religion.
For me, the most powerful moment came during a joint visit to Mauthausen, a concentration camp where over 100,000 Jews and others were murdered during World War II. It isn’t easy to stand outside a gas chamber where men, women, and children were so brutally and inhumanely killed. But when one stands there with a new friend—the proverbial other—on sacred ground, the experience offers hope that perhaps the Jewish people are not alone.
The MJC participants won’t be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they can’t eradicate widespread anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We can do little, if anything, to heal the distrust that runs deep between many Muslims and Jews around the world. But it is surely remarkable that we did in fact meet during such a difficult time, and share a room, share a laugh, share a moment in the face of so many who say our friendship is impossible.
So, is there hope for Muslim-Jewish relations? Yes—there are conversations to be had and partnerships to be built. Even though we speak different languages and use disparate reference points for understanding the world, we share a commitment to coexistence and between us there is more than enough hope to go around.
Rebecca Keys is the Assistant Director and Chief of Staff of the AJC Boston office. For more information about AJC, please visit www.ajc.org.