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ESSAY: At a Muslim-Jewish conference, dialogue and hope

Jewish participants of an interfaith conference in Sarajevo saying the Kaddish over the graves of 1985 Srebrenica massacre victims, July 2013. (Courtesy CMJ)
Jewish participants of an interfaith conference in Sarajevo saying the Kaddish over the graves of 1985 Srebrenica massacre victims, July 2013. (Courtesy CMJ)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (JTA) — Sarajevo is a city with a rich multicultural past, but it also bears the scars of war. Take a short walk through the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina and you will see the many cemeteries and bullet-riddled walls, which are undergoing restoration.

These lay side by side with magnificent churches, mosques and synagogues. For this reason, 100 Jews and Muslims from 39 countries gathered there last month to listen and learn from one another at an interfaith dialogue conference organized by the Muslim-Jewish Conference.

I was uneasy about participating. I was concerned that as an Israeli, a secular Jew, a combat soldier in the reserves and a Zionist activist, I would be surrounded by political activists whose sole purpose is to vilify Israel. From my experience, many dialogue initiatives have been hijacked by radicals, who silence any voice that is different.

On the very first day, however, my concerns were allayed. I found myself sitting and talking with young men and women from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt, European Muslims, along with Jews from all over the world, each voicing their unique perspectives on conflicts, hate speech, gender relations and religious practice. Miraculously, despite the Arab-Israeli conflict, the different sides succeeded in overcoming the stereotypes, biases and ignorance we all have.

On the interpersonal level, it was a great success: a diverse group of Jews and Muslims who set aside their cynicism and mistrust, and engaged in friendly conversation for a week. Many questions were asked, some of them difficult and pointed, but there was room for answering, explaining and listening, an attempt to bridge the gaps that for many Israelis often seem unbridgeable.

It was not all rosy. Disagreements and tensions were present, and groups opposing interreligious dialogue accused the organizers of promoting certain political agendas. We may have been successful in overcoming our personal differences and finding common ground, but hatred, the foundation of violence, is still rife in many parts of the Muslim and Western worlds.

The MJC has become a platform for coexistence and peace, which allowed me to present the Jewish-Zionist perspective to young Muslims. For this reason, Zionist activists — from the political left and right — must be more involved in initiatives promoting dialogue, and not leave them to groups and individuals who are more interested in feeding the conflict.

In Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict is prominent in all public discourse, and it is practically impossible to have a dialogue without it being the focus. However, it is still possible to learn from initiatives that have not been infected with a radical agenda, to try to bring people closer together, and to stop fanning the flames of hatred and alienation inside Israel, and between Israel and its neighbors. The true challenge is to bring those furthest apart closer together.

The conference in Sarajevo proves that it can be done. An Israeli talking to a Pakistani, a Shiite listening to an American Jew, Jewish participants (religious and secular) saying the Kaddish over the graves of those murdered at Srebrenica in 1995 (where more than 8,000 Muslims were murdered while U.N. soldiers stood by). When people are willing to hear criticism, talk about it and initiate practical measures for cooperation, there is still hope for dialogue.

One Friday, we visited a mosque to experience the day’s prayers there and then to the synagogue for Sabbath services. At the end of the prayers, I found myself calling across the room to my Pakistani friend, “Osama! Shabbat Shalom!” a phrase that in any other context would be impossible.

(Itai Reuveni, a researcher at NGO Monitor in Jerusalem, participated in the Muslim-Jewish Conference in Sarajevo.)