The Muslim Jewish Conference: Putting things ‘right’  by Carla Habif

My first experience of the Muslim Jewish Conference was in 2013 as a participant in Sarajevo, where I joined as a part of the committee on Conflict Transformation. I had amazing chairs and colleagues, learned a lot and made new friends. Not only did this experience change my life, but it changed my perception of life. So this year, in 2014, I decided to go back and join the family in Vienna.

It was remarkable and challenging. I was a chair for the first time and co-chairing a committee with a colleague I’d never met before. I was dealing with the intense emotions of the participants when I myself was going through a very emotional year back home in Brazil about my interreligious and intercultural activities. I was feeling this huge responsibility of being a facilitator to such incredible people, with such different and amazing backgrounds. I kept thinking: Who am I to do this? On the last day, I still thought that these people were the ones who facilitated my life, but I also understood something important. I was someone who really believed in the “cause”. Really.

About being a first time chair. Well, we always have to start from somewhere. We must have a first time, and learn from it. MJC 2014 was about that. Going with the unplanned, making right decisions and wrong ones. Sometimes the worst mistakes resulted in the best results! A lot of crying happened during the week, but a lot of good laughs too.

I co-chaired the Historical Narratives and Identity Committee with my colleague from Pakistan. I am Jewish, he is Muslim. We are from very different cultures. I teach History, he works with Economics. And, again, we had never met. The time difference between Brazil and Pakistan is eight hours, which also made us terrible at making the meetings we had scheduled on skype. Until we met one another, all we knew was that our own histories and identities were very different. How were we supposed to make a good team together? It just so happens that he also believed in the cause. When I write “cause” here, I mean the humanity. Not specifically Muslim-Jewish inter-relations, but human-human relations. The equality between two persons, despite their culture, nation, gender or religion. Understanding that the meaning of identities is in the construction of a person’s history, and that History is a much more complexly constructed version of facts. Besides that, I believe we share the same understanding of God. We did an amazing job together.

Somehow, we managed to get a very different and strong list of participants to actually become a group by the end of the Conference. “Somehow” I wrote, because we really don’t know what was it that made them speak about their personal individual cases of struggling with identity and relate to the other, listen, understand, exchange.

We had a good balance between Jews and Muslims in our Committee, men and women, from every part of the world. And just after the summer, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was there, touching everyone’s emotions. We had an Israeli participant who was directly connected to the situation, who brought us a very human perspective. Some Muslims spoke out about why they thought that Israel was being disproportional in its use of force and needed to engage with Hamas. A few of the Jewish participants told us how and why it is so difficult to be critical of the Israeli actions, defending the country no matter what. We had also people who weren’t Jewish or Muslim, which just made everything more interesting. In our group, we also had participants who wanted to highlight even more facets of their identities, be a part of a larger plural social group.

With so many reasons to yell, to be upset, to disagree … all that happened in our Committee room was conversation. Dialogue. Sharing. Friendship. Because once you understand the real meaning of an identity of having many identities, of how plural history is, of how the “other’s” narrative of history is as true as your own, you don’t fight. You don’t need to, since you are not trying to be right. You’re just trying to exchange and, by that, create a better solution for every part involved. That’s what happened there.

The wonderful part about being a chair is that you only have to throw some ideas on the table. The Committee participants do the rest. And you have the chance to be there and see that dialogue, actual dialogue, happen. You get to be a part of it.

When I was at the airport, coming home, I thought to myself: “where am I going to go back to?” It is so tough to leave a place where people can understand each other, listen to each other, and head off to somewhere else where people just want to be right. I’m afraid that our biggest problem nowadays is that most people are just looking to be right, and not to do the right thing or reach the better solution. And while this is happening, we are just going to hear more yells, more fights, more disagreements.

It was such a pleasure to be able to chair a group, a room full of people who learned how to talk to one other. But the question remains. I still go to bed asking myself: “who was I to do that?” But the thing is, the answer really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who I am. What is really important is that it happened and that I believe these people are going to spread the right message. I’ll be glad if I end up being someone who helped someone else in this process, but for me, the most important thing is that other people helped me.

I hope they know it is not an easy path to take. It really isn’t. The beauty of the Muslim Jewish Conference is that, although we only get together once a year, we still have each other as a family, for support and love, for the rest of the year. So, once more, it doesn’t matter who I am or what my professional experience is; what really matters is that I am a part of this family, this amazing, different-and-yet-the-same group of people.

Carla Habif

Muslim Jewish Conference 2014