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If someone had told me three years ago that I would be skipping my finals to attend a Muslim-Jewish conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, I would have never believed it. Yet, here I am: thousands of miles away from home; engaging and speaking with Muslims; learning, discussing, and gaining a deeper understanding of their culture and religion as well as my own.

Ben opened the first day with a session titled “Breaking down stereotypes.” Standing on stage he explained the process. We broke into groups according to our respective regions and discussed stereotypes that we thought other groups had of us. We were instructed:  “This program has the potential to be as powerful as we want it to be, and for the sake of the conference try to identify stereotypes that have the impact of keeping the communities apart, enabling us to engage with our deepest stereotypes.”

We had an interesting discussion. I have read many books and articles about Jewish identity, stereotypes, misconceptions and anti-Semitism, but I have never before tried to truly view my religious identity through the eyes of non-Jews, nor have I ever discussed with other Jews the way they feel about how they are perceived by others. I didn’t begin to understand the power of the exercise until we reconvened and read out the lists. Four days later, I realize that I still don’t understand the full potential of what we accomplished in that short session.

Stereotypes that Muslims thought others had of them:

  • All terrorists
  • Against Western ideals
  • Against Western dress
  • All Muslim men are violent
  • Woman are oppressed
  • Women and girls are uneducated and unvalued
  • Islam is violent, aggressive and evokes violence
  • Women do not have rights
  • Live savage lifestyles (camels etc)
  • Want the worst for America
  • Convert via force and want to convert everyone
  • International human rights law does not apply to them
  • That Islam has a political agenda
  • Kill their own people via scriptures
  • Islam is a burden in itself that’s forced on all of us
  • Marriage is forced, especially for younger girls
  • Praying 24/7, no fun
  • Do not enter other places of worship.
  • Terrorists = Muslims (lexicon used just for Muslims)
  • Duel heritage: (Muslim and citizen of non Arab countries)
  • Women have a domestic role and no leadership roles
  • Barbaric punishments
  • Closed minded
  • Have to dress like a Muslim in order to be considered a Muslim
  • Treat others unfairly
  • Only have interests regarding Muslims
  • Intolerant of other religions
  • Impractical religion
  • Hypocritical – say they believe in one thing and do another
  • Anti- democratic
  • Anti-human rights
  • Polygamy – no gender equality
  • Dangerous – racial profiling
  • Islam being a religion just for men
  • Perceived as being very powerful

Stereotypes that Jews thought others had of them:

  • Lots of money
  • Jews = Israelis and linked to Israel related political views
  • Conspiracy theories – Elders of Zion
  • Jews = religiously observant ( + external dress)
  • Superior to other religious and cultural groups
  • Bookworms
  • Self-victimization
  • Educated
  • Jews are physically inferior (post soviet union belief that they make bad soldiers)
  • Cheap/greedy
  • Only Care about Israel and Jews
  • Zionism = Judaism
  • Control media, lobby and anything important and powerful
  • All served in the army
  • All “speak” the Jewish language
  • Colonialists /liberal
  • Jewish mother
  • Selfish, egotistical, cling to their own
  • Deserving and cunning
  • No sense of style and fashion
  • Believe we deserve special treatment based on our past
  • Don’t like Zionism
  • Strict religion
  • Victims and like to see ourselves as victims and use this to convince the world to give us stuff

Stereotypes that other groups (Christian, Arab, Hindus) thought others had of them

  • Christians are bad – caused many of the world’s problems
  • Forceful conversion (historical forceful conversation of a people all over the world)
  • Going to heaven is dependent on being Christian and following the Christian belief
  • Dirty Arabs
  • Can’t be a Christian Arab
  • Christian Arabs are viewed as traitors by other Arabs
  • Hindus – not really a religion, polytheistic religion and that Hindus hate Muslims and that they can’t get along with each other

The Dictionary defines a stereotype as: “a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations about a group that allows others to categorize them and treat them accordingly.”

When listing the stereotypes that I thought others had of my religion, and me as a representative of my religion, I listed things that I clearly knew to be incorrect. If the Muslim participants did the same, then the logical conclusion derived from this exercise is that many, if not all, of my perceptions about Muslims are completely incorrect. It was an uneasy feeling to come to terms with, that there was a possibility that everything I once thought to be true might be actually be false.

After breaking up into smaller inter-religious groups and discussing some of these stereotypes, the session ended and the real challenge began: Listening to each other, trying to understand each other and fostering mutual respect towards each others’ religions.

Four days later my perception of many aspects of Islam has been turned upside down. I still have a lot to learn. I don’t know that I will ever fully understand the religion, but I learned to be open minded, I learned to be accepting and I learned to open up my heart and mind before judging something “other.” Jews and Muslims have many similar religious concepts and many similar values and beliefs. There is still a lot to disagree about, but now we can disagree from a place of mutual respect and THAT is what I believe will make all the difference.

– Chaya, Israel

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