The Israel Research Fellowship has afforded me many opportunities this year. Being placed with WUJS, the World Union of Jewish Students, has seen me fly all over the globe seeing how the younger members of the tribe are setting up their own grassroots initiatives.
Seeing the power that young Jews can harness when given the tools they need and allowed to run with their own destinies has been a source of great strength to me in my own personal, Jewish journey. Seeing the reluctance of the established community to support such initiatives and the lip service many pay to “youth empowerment” has been of great frustration and it is of little surprise to me when these organizations find themselves with a thinning support base, lost in a sea dual of self-importance and irrelevance.
One of my most moving encounters with WUJS occurred last week in the European capital of Sarajevo. Once a beacon of coexistence, Sarajevo was home to significant populations of Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Following the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s the communities turned on one another with the Bosniak Muslims looking for independence and the Catholics and Orthodox Christians looking to join their respective communities in Croatia and Serbia.
The war ended in the mass ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the predominately Orthodox east of the country and a NATO intervention to end the conflict. The city has moved on much from this and on a side note I would not hesitate to recommend it as a tourist destination – the food, the people, the views, the beer!
The Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) lucked out big in choosing Sarajevo. Once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans this city was a natural home for one of the world’s largest gatherings of Muslim and Jewish emerging leaders and young professionals. As the delegates took Sarajevo into their hearts, the people of this tiny city did the same.
Sarajevo is still home to a small Jewish community, its members enjoying good relations with both the authorities and the general public. On the opening gala event participants were shown a film documenting the amazing efforts the local Jews made to shelter their Muslim neighbours in the synagogue during the siege of the city. The film went on to explain how the Israeli government even smuggled Zejneba Hardaga, a Mulsim women afforded the title Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, out of the country. Hardaga’s daughter and son-in-law would settle permanently in Israel, convert to Judaism and send their daughter to serve in the IDF.
With delegates from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Canada the MJC is inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue at its most raw, its most real and its most rewarding. It is a rare opportunity for an Israeli director of a Jewish-Zionist charity to meet, on the job, with religious Saudis and discuss the issues of the day.
The MJC and its participants tackles issues that many are unwilling or unable to address; anti-Semitism in Europe, Islamaphobia in pop culture, the place of women in Arab society, self stereotypes and competing narratives. This is by no means a conference of hugs and back slapping, the conversation at times turned to arguments, the dialogue continuing over lunches, dinners and into the following day.
The experience has given me much to think about. Spending the week watching Egypt once more explode into violence, rape and political upheaval with a delegation of young Cairo activists has shown me how many of us in this region aspire for the same simple goals; peace, security, self-determination and human rights.