Thou Shalt be Friends – by Denisa Nestakova

Reflections on “Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism in Media”

In 2013, I had enjoyed MJC as a participant in Sarajevo. This year I could not enjoy it like the last time. Instead, I was given the opportunity to chair the Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism committee! Since I was chairing an MJC committee for the first time, I was a bit nervous. I was worried that people might have been placed in the committee just to show who suffers more, who struggles more, who is a bigger victim of media propaganda. I was apprehensive about the committee discussions ending up becoming nothing more than blame-games being played by participants. I feared that the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine would dominate every aspect of debate during sessions. I assumed that as a Chair who is Catholic, participants will find it difficult to relate to me. I was afraid of bullet words being shot in the committee.

I couldn’t be happier that I was completely wrong.

The diversity of participants in the committee was unbelievable. The twelve participants and three chairs (including myself) belonged to different nationalities, religions, races, professions and ages. However, despite these differences, the participants were always respectful; always careful to build trust among each other, even when discussing the most sensitive of topics where emotions run high. Do not get me wrong. They were not politically correct. They did not stop speaking their minds when it seemed to be tricky, scandalous, or problematic.

The most interesting part was to see how participants deconstructed stereotypes that they held about their own community. I was amazed at how they started to communicate and share.

It was also very interesting to observe how the stereotype of “the Jew” or “the Muslim” comes crashing down once you get to know real people and real stories. The participant from Israel had never-ending discussions with the participant from Pakistan; the beautiful Jewish participant from Berlin was engrossed in the Turkish girl’s story; while the Brazilian Jew explained his project to the Hungarian Palestinian.

During the conference, the Israel-Palestine conflict was gaining intensity, and had been dubbed “the elephant in the room” by the MJC team. Our committee also discussed this “elephant in the room” in detail, and focused especially on how it was being portrayed in the media. I could sense that the participants were sad, angry, frustrated and scared. But most of all they were tired of the violence and bloodshed. In Vienna, they may not have found the solution to war and violence, but they did find understanding, the ability to communicate, the ability to argue with respect, the courage to laugh when it was so difficult to simply be.

We laughed a lot, we spoke even more, we discussed and created (yes we created the “Potato model” of flow of information through media), we proposed several projects, we danced, we hit each other with paper sticks, we cried a little.

I believe there were times when people wanted to be a bit louder. I think there were times when people felt offended. But these feelings were not based on the difference of religion anymore; these feeling were based on individual connection and empathy.

At the end, our committee was about coming together and understanding different perspectives, and recognizing how media uses and abuses its power to shape perceptions. It was about identifying these trends and to formulate a collective response to propaganda, something that can benefit both the Muslims and Jewish communities.

Denisa Nestakova
PhD student in General History at Comenius University, specializing in Arab-Jewish Relations in British Mandate Palestine/
Co-chair of the Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism in Media committee
Muslim Jewish Conference 2014