A Jewish native of Vienna, 28-year-old Ilja Sichrovsky is at the vanguard of a movement to improve relations between Jews and Muslims. As founder and secretary of the Muslim Jewish Conference (mjconference.org), he recently brought several dozen young members of both communities together at the University of Vienna for six days of dialogue and leadership-training activities.
Sichrovsky is the son of Peter Sichrovsky, an Austrian journalist and author who wrote groundbreaking books in the 1980s about young Jews in Austria, and about the children of Holocaust survivors and of Nazis. He later was elected to the European Parliament, as a member of the rightwing Freedom Party.
The Jewish Week spoke with Ilja Sichrovsky recently at the Manhattan office of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which supports his work.
Q: We’re familiar with the growing Muslim influence — often threatening Jewish interests — in such European countries as England, France and Germany. What sort of Islamic community does Austria have, and how are its relations with the country’s small Jewish community?
A: The Muslim community in Austria is around 400,000 official members. There are many who consider themselves Muslim but have not officially registered to be part of the Muslim community, so it is hard to come up with an exact number. The relationship with the Jewish community is a peaceful one, which of course includes sometimes-emotional debates about the Middle East.
Some say it’s not safe for a Jew to walk around parts of Paris, the Muslim neighborhoods, with a visible kipa or Magen David. Are the Muslim parts of Vienna safer?
I have experienced anti-Semitism in many forms in Austria, but these experiences have always been with right-wing Austrians or Nazi supporters. I never experienced Muslim anti-Semitism in Austria; wearing a kipa is not a problem in areas where there is a strong Muslim population.
How does a Viennese Jew, the grandson of Holocaust refugees, develop such a strong interest in relations with Muslims?
I met the Pakistan delegation to the Harvard World Model UN Conference 2007 in Geneva. I was approached by one member of the delegation with the words: “I heard that you are Jewish; you are the first Jew I ever met.” We spent the next hours talking about what we thought we knew about each other. It was shocking how much of what we thought we knew were actually stereotypes and prejudices. We established an honest, fruitful friendship. After this, I was determined to replicate what Mustafa and myself had accomplished, and show the Muslim and Jewish leaders of tomorrow that inter-religious relationships can be strong.
Are you optimistic that better relations between Jews and Muslims are possible?
I do not just believe it. I witness it with my own eyes over and over again.
Is your optimism limited to the younger generation of Jews and Muslims, or can older members of both communities find common ground?
The younger generation is definitely the key. But we have seen the older generation getting involved. I see reason for hope in every individual that throws overboard what he or she heard, read and watched on TV. The alumnae of the MJC 2010 have so far facilitated Muslim-Jewish projects or dialogue in Canada, Hungary, Austria and Sweden. An active grassroots movement in various countries is being built.
Your father, while living in Vienna, was a peripheral member of the Jewish community; his work with Nazis’ children was not widely supported or appreciated by Austrian Jews. Do you find much support or understanding in the Jewish community for your dealings with Muslims?
The simple answer is yes and no. There was incredible support from individual members of the Jewish community. The main synagogue in Vienna welcomed us. Unfortunately, the official representatives of this community reacted differently; there was no support whatsoever.
Are you, working to improve relations with Muslims, following in the footsteps of your father, who was concerned with the post-war generation of young Jews and children of Nazis?
Although I admire the work my father did, it was not what motivated me to get active in Muslim-Jewish relations. It is simply the experience that I was so wrong in my picture of “the other.”
What’s the best advice your father gave you?
It is more what I learned from his example. Trust in yourself and your own judgment, even if everyone is telling you to do differently. He always had the courage to do what he wanted to do, even if that meant taking a risk and going against what people believed was the right thing to do.