In the past two weeks ISIS designated a car bomb in Cairo, wounding 29 people, in “retaliation” for the execution of six of their members last May. In the past two weeks the ceasefire between different Syrian factions, Assad’s government and Hezbollah collapsed and the fighting returned to the Lebanese border town of Zabadani, as well as to the two Shiite cities in the north of the country. A week later over one hundred people were killed at the outskirts of Damascus in an aerial attack ordered by Assad. In the past two weeks several Israelis were stabbed and Palestinians were shot, not long after a Palestinian house was burned down around Nablus by Jewish terrorists. In Yemen Al-Qaeda is getting stronger and today the allies of the Houthi militia have launched Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Muslims in countries that are not directly involved in those conflicts or Jews in diaspora communities, turn out to be part of the story. Sometimes, they do in fact take an active part in reinforcing polarizations and conflict in the Middle East. Sending money, marching with flags in their towns, or writing angry Facebook posts or opinion articles are just some of the forms of one-sided cheerleading these communities choose to engage with as a form of “solidarity”. Sometimes they even volunteer to join the conflicted region for the “real thing”. That can be young men from Brooklyn, and though they hardly speak one cohesive sentence in Hebrew, they make an express-Aliyah at home and rush into settling in the most divisive Jewish settlement of Hebron. Different in countless ways, it can be the many young men and women from North American and Europe who volunteer to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
There are also millions of Jews and Muslims – in the Middle East and around the world – who are often held accountable for the violent actions taken in the name of their religion, even though they do not condone them in any way. However, the opposite of those who perpetrate heinous actions in the name of collectives such as the “Jewish people” or “Islam” cannot simply be not to condone. The opposite of anti-Semitic calls or actions by Muslims or Islamophobic statements or policies by Jews is Muslims and Jews who resist and turn respectively against that. Muslims for Jews and Jews for Muslims, in their own communities.
This is what happened last week when 160 people took part in the sixth Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) in Berlin. Without scholarships or affiliation to any particular NGO, they came from over 40 countries, including Australia, Argentina, Sudan, China, Malaysia and Pakistan, to hold discussions around the clock on everything from conflict mitigation and racism to gender issues, interfaith matters and art. Some of these discussions will result in transnational partnerships to be implemented together; some will remain an inspiration to the participants who return to their respective communities, with a stronger determination to make a difference in a community in Miami, with an international campaign to commemorate the Jewish holocaust and the Srebrenica massacre, or by initiating an international platform for dialogue. One such platform – YaLa-Young Leaders – already exists on Facebook for several years, getting close to one million likes, and drawing fresh minds from mostly Arab states to break taboos and engage in constructive dialogue, also with Israelis. The tens of thousands that attended last week in Berlin one of the many concerts of Daniel Barenboim’s Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Jews and Arabs since 2005 is another such a platform.
It is easy to scoff at such actions: “This is only preaching to the choir”… “These are a bunch of intellectuals or progressives that represent nobody but themselves”… “These initiatives are nice but do not change the hard realities on the ground”. These criticisms hold a grain of truth. It is true that they those who speak up for dialogue will unlikely convert a single religious fundamentalist into moderation. It is true that some of the changes on the ground will need to happen through State actions through military, economic and/or diplomatic operations.
However, it is also true that while most of us would love in theory to see interfaith dialogue replace religious war, many of us don’t lift a finger towards it. Sometimes that is literally all it takes. If there is anything that would make the next YaLa post, or the next Barenboim concert as viral and impactful as the average ISIS video, it will come from less of us scoffing and more of us acting. If 160 volunteers in the last MJC pale in comparison with over 22,000 that ISIS recruits from abroad, apply to participate to make the seventh conference even bigger.
There is more than cynicism, however, that keeps many of us passive. There is the beautiful and true cliché that a forest that is growing makes much less noise than a single tree that is falling, and that is what the majority of people of any faith or ethnicity is doing: working, developing, creating, growing, only to be interrupted by the occasional falling tree (or crashing airplane). A further layer was mentioned by the Chair of the MJC, Mr. Sami Elmansoury: almost everyone experiences trauma – of themselves, of their loved ones or their nation. Most of us are paralyzed by the grief. It is up to us to decide when we return into movement, and whether we do so to leave more destruction or construction behind.
It is a long, probably never-ending, campaign towards inter-religious, inter-ethnic and basically inter-human understanding. However – as Helen Keller has been often misquoted – the fact we cannot do everything doesn’t mean we cannot do something. It is probably only by sticking to that almost banal, yet ever challenging approach, that we can make our voices spread more virally than the average ISIS video.