MJC Conference: Escaping the Social Media Echo Chambers

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Samuel Klein is Co-chair of the New York Chapter of ACCESS NY, the young leadership division of American Jewish Committee and co-chair of ACCESS Global Muslim-Jewish Taskforce.

It was the dinner-line at the Muslim Jewish Conference, early August in a Church in Vienna. Over a hundred young Muslim and Jewish activists were standing around waiting for the buffet to open. A full month after Israel had launched Operation Protective Edge, the fighting had already claimed close to two thousand lives following the ground offensive on July 17 and the troops had withdrawn just days before the Conference began. The images coming out of Gaza were harrowing. Social Media was awash with these images, sound-bites, articles, YouTube clips and updates were occurring almost by the minute across every and any platform available.

In the queue, many were checking and updating their facebook feeds. Next to me in the line were a Gazan, an Israeli, an Egyptian, a Saudi and several Americans. Comparing what was occurring on our Facebook feeds was deeply shocking. All of us were cocooned in our little echo-chambers, receiving media that fed us items we wanted to hear, that reinforced the stereotypes and which subliminally or overtly asked us to judge the actions of one side or another as ‘mass-murder’, ‘war-crimes’, ‘carnage’, ‘inhuman’—the list went on.

And yet, here we were spending a week together—135 activists from across over 45 countries, Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, seeking to build a better future by refusing to let the Media drive a wedge between us.

Lest it be said that such activities are co-coordinated by space cadets, without a grip on the real world, it ought to be said straight off the bat, that this was not one of those conferences. The atmosphere was initially strained. It was far from a Kumbaya. It was hard for people, many of who were passionate advocates in peace-activism, but several of who had served in Israeli combat units, and others who had been exposed to deeply anti-Semitic sentiment in their home countries.  Most times we were civil, but every now and again there was a very heated argument.  

The most powerful day was a visit to the Matthausen Concentration camp (see the video below). Such visits very sadly have a tendency to dissolve into cliché, to whitewash the pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands, by becoming an ‘excursion’ or ‘history tour’ to trivialize their memory, but to the credit of the tour-guides and the sensitivity of the curators at Matthausen, this did not happen.

At one point, several of the groups came across Graffiti which had been left on the outer walls by local hoodlums “Muslims—you are to us what the Jews were to our grandfathers”. It was a powerful and sobering moment amidst many such moments, but one, which resonated all the more deeply for those attending MJC. It left an indelible imprint.  

In the cavernous reception area at Matthausen. Bashir and I both led the prayers recited to commemorate those who had lost their lives and to pray that such calamities are not visited upon our peoples again—in the aftermath of the operations in Gaza, such prayers felt all the more urgent.  

On a personal note, I shall not forget quickly, singing the Kaddish at full volume in the reception hall, surrounded by members of the MJC family, Muslim and Jewish alike—all of us wrapped in our thoughts, generated by the visit, by our presence at Matthausen, by the previous month’s war.

There was no Jewish triumphalism, not ‘Am Yisrael Chai” as sometimes accompanies the end of a visit to concentration camps which promised to exterminate Jews for all time—Instead their was quiet and solemn reflection on the concept of brother and sister hood, and on the power of an experience to move us towards each other rather than away from each other. The visit to Matthausen literally turned the tide of the conversations away from the Middle East and on relationships in the here-and-now. It was transformative.

I was at MJC representing, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) as co-chair of the New York Chapter or ACCESS, the organisations’ young leadership arm. AJC is a pioneer in advancing interfaith and intergroup understanding, which is founded in the fundamental belief that the well being of Israel and the worldwide Jewish community, is linked to the vibrancy of and positive relations among all faith and ethnic groups. As co-chair, it was essential for me to be present at gatherings such as MJC where such sentiments are more than words on paper.

The Muslim Jewish Conference was a week dedicated to developing tools for understanding that young voices and perspectives are essential for developing global diplomacy for the next generation. ACCESS prepares the next generation of Jewish leaders for advocacy and relationship building on the community, national, and international levels with education, training, and exposure to the critical issues that its members face as Jews and global citizens.  

For example, in 2008, an ACCESS bridge-building mission traveled to Dubai to attend the Woman as Global Leaders Conference. The ACCESS delegation led sessions on grassroots advocacy and met with business, academic and political leaders from the United Arab Emirates, as well as women’s rights advocates and journalists. Another ACCESS delegation followed up with a visit in 2012 to Abu Dhabi.

In the last year ACCESS has prioritized Muslim-Jewish relations as a key strategic priority. Following attendance at Muslim Jewish Conference, we have identified the need to train a core group of national leaders who are to undertake this work in their communities, but also train their peers to engage with the Muslim community, thereby expanding our reach and impact.

As a result of several of our senior lay leaders attending MJC these past several years, we hope to train a cohort of young Jewish leaders who have a demonstrated commitment to promoting mutual understanding, trust, and tolerance between the Jewish and Muslim communities and establish an accelerated leadership development program to support young Jewish advocates in their outreach to the Muslim community.