Us and Them

Us and Them

23 Aug 2016

By Denisa Nešťáková

Denisa Nešťáková shares her thoughts on coming together and working together dispite differences, even when discussing the most sensitive and painful of topics, in this dispatch from the 2016 Muslim Jewish Conference.

The 7th annual Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) was held in Berlin in August 2016.

Over one hundred and forty young Jews, Muslims and friends (non-Jews, non-Muslims) from all around the world attended the conference to discuss together various aspects of Jewish and Muslim identity in the modern world.

For me, it was my fourth experience with the MJC. I first attended in 2013 in Sarajevo as a participant, and I keep returning as part of the core team. In 2014 in Vienna I co-chaired the Committee on Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism in the Media. Last year in Berlin I was the co-chair of the Committee on Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism and Hate Speech. This year I co-chaired the Committee “Us and Them” Encountering Marginalization.

The participants of the MJC were divided according to their preferences into six different committees where they were able to discuss, create, meet and understand the other participants.

My committee “Us and Them” Encountering Marginalization surprised me with its diversity.

The twenty participants and three chairs (including myself) had different color of skin, belonged to different nationalities, religious groups, professions and ages. However despite these differences, the participants were respectful. They were careful to build trust between each other even when discussing the most sensitive of topics when emotions can run high. They did not stop speaking their minds when it seemed to be tricky, scandalous, or problematic. The designated safe spaces helped us to deconstruct stereotypes that they held about their own community. I was amazed at how they started to communicate and shared the most personal stories. But we also laughed a lot, and we spoke even more. We discussed and proposed several projects, we played, we hit each other with paper sticks, and we cried a little.

Outside of the committee „Us and Them” a rich MJC program was going on.

Together we were breaking stereotypes, celebrated Shabbat and observed the Jumu´ah Prayer.

As a group we went to the Memorial Sachsenhausen Camp, and prayed together because we believe that “your pain is our pain”.

Together we talked about everything and nothing in the hotel lobby.

Amazing! Isn’t it? However for the last four years, I have been asking myself: “Why?!” “Why are we here, why are we attending the MJC?” Not every team member or participant has a story about what made them volunteer or come to the MJC. Sometimes a strong reason or a memorable anecdote is missing. Sometimes there is no special motivation. To me it is understandable why the team members volunteered their time, energy or holiday allowance to return year after year.

To me, it is clear why so many people apply to attend the MJC every year. I do not wonder why. They want to - simply because it is right.

And most importantly because we are considered to be crazy. We are considered to be the naive, crazy and stupid ones in a world where hatred, discrimination, racism, Anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are far more common than dialogue and the will to meet “the others” to have a coffee together. However among the MJC ‘family’, we are totally normal. We are the ones who speak out against violence and instead choose dialogue, discussions, friendship and love.

I have never felt more welcomed in any other group of people. My identity and beliefs have never been questioned in a more sensitive and friendly way; my heart has never been filled with more hope and happiness than during a week at the MJC.

So why do people keep coming to the MJC? It is simple - because of the unique normality. Because of the unbelievable enthusiasm of the people involved, the new friendships which have started there and shaped our path, the understanding, the hope, the change we need, and the humanity.

No, it is not easy. There are many tears and arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings and fighting. But who says that anything good will come easy?

Mgr. Denisa Nešťáková, MA is a PhD Candidate in General History at the Comenius University in Bratislava where her research is focused on Arab-Jewish relations. She completed her second MA in Jewish civilizations at the Hochschule für jüdische Studien in Heidelberg. For the past three years she has been a Chair of different committees related to Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism and racism at the annual Muslim Jewish Conference.

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