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Empathy Knows No Bounds. Europe Needs It Most of All.

How to fight Europe’s centuries-old hatred of everything that is different: dialogue, unity, power in numbers

Ilja Sichrovsky
December 12, 2016
Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Two people hold each other by the new makeshift memorial in Nice, France, July 18, 2016. Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Two people hold each other by the new makeshift memorial in Nice, France, July 18, 2016. Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Growing up in Vienna in the 1990s, my t-shirts were made in China, my Walkman was made in Japan, and the music I listened to was made in the U.S. I ate Thai food and drank African coffee. The Austrian-ness around us seemed to get lost among all this multiculturalism—both in products as well as people. The French-ness, Italian-ness, and Germnan-ness of Europe seemed to be slowly slipping away.

I, of course, was generally OK with that. For a long time I felt that whatever was left to be Austrian—or French or German, for that matter—could be best kept somewhere in a museum. Yet I still had a feeling of concern—a foreboding that, someday soon, people might once again become afraid for their identity.

And now here we are, looking at a Europe rallying the last troops it has to defend a continent marked by xenophobia, intolerance, religious radicalization, and the centuries-old hatred of everything that is different.

And, as usual for Europe, it is the “others” that pay the price for a collective crisis of identity. And, as always, we are turning against the so-called “enemy within” that we claim weakens our societies, takes our jobs and destroys our culture: Skin color, religious belief and national identities are again the simplest lines along which we divide our communities and Europe’s minorities—primarily Jews and Muslims—are yet again the main target of rising hate crimes.

In Jewish communities, leaders warn loudly about the anti-Semitism imported by “the Muslims”—refugees from war-torn countries struggling to find a home in a largely unwelcoming continent. In Muslim communities, hatred for “the Jews” is fostered by some to create internal cohesion and lay blame. And while we talk about each other, the ever more right-wing governments that rule us all are discussing ways to ban our religious slaughter and circumcision rituals. While we live in fear of one another, emboldened racists in our cities are tearing the hijabs and kippas off the heads of young men and women on buses and undergrounds while swastikas and pig heads are desecrating both of our houses of worship.

So what to do if you’re just one butterfly flying over that forest fire, trying to decide whether to burn for a good cause, or to leave to some form of safety?

You need to get yourself some power in numbers.


Most Europeans are actually still sane. They don’t want to live on a continent where men in brown or black shirts tell us again what to do, where to do it, what to wear, what to think, and what better not to talk about in public. But in the face of current developments, many Europeans still, as has been entrenched in our genes throughout history, ask ourselves why we should get active and be the one to speak up, when none of our good, law-abiding neighbors do.

But that’s where the problem starts—and it’s where it has to end.

When I was 25, the longest conversation I could ever remember having with a Muslim was ordering a kebab. Isolated and isolating myself from their community, which came out of a natural instinct, actually created fear of the other. It took a young Pakistani to approach me at an international conference for me to change. Mustafa told me that he never met a Jew before in his life, and wanted a chance to speak with me. He was doubtful yet determined, insecure but at the same time insisting on grasping this first chance in his life to talk to the so-called “other.”

By actively seeking out a conversation, Mustafa gave me one of the greatest gifts in this world: not only a true and sincere friendship, but the certainty that the simple tool of dialogue, when used efficiently, can be a powerful weapon, especially for minorities, to organize and defend themselves by building alliances. By increasing their numbers.

Barely seven years later, I was the head of an organization that hosted 140 people from around the world at a Muslim Jewish conference—a place where they could talk to each other instead of about each other, where interfaith and intercultural dialogue is taken as seriously as a prevention tool for hate crimes and racism as security institutions are as tools to protect us from them. Indeed, it was long before we got some real-life experience in this—when a Muslim alumni was trapped in a war zone, and it was our network of Muslim-Jewish cooperation that found a way to save his life.

As a Jew from Austria, who was numbed by the age of 11 or 12 by yearly attendance at concentration camps—which became a bitter routine rather than an active reflection on remembrance and history—it took a group of young Muslims from 40 different countries to change my mind. I watched them say prayers for lost loved ones in the middle of Babi Yar, in the middle of Mauthausen, and in the middle of Sachsenhausen … I saw them share my pain, and it allowed me to cry again at a Holocaust memorial.

My ancestor Heinrich Sichrovsky was made a knight by emperor Franz Joseph for establishing the first railway in Austria. Jews and Muslims alike fought in the armies of the European empires as patriots for their own countries causes. But all of our collective titles, achievements, and honors meant nothing when Europe decided to massacre its minorities—on so many occasions. It meant nothing when my Jewish grandfather was hiding from the Nazis in the toilet of a train. The only thing that made a difference was the humanity, and conscience of one German soldier when he pointed my grandfather in the right direction and said, “Run.”

Human passion, empathy, and a sense of what is right and what is wrong: This knowledge has no religious borders, it has no nationality or political affiliation. And if in 10 years from now an MJC alumni somewhere in this world is in the position to decide, we will have done our part for them to do the right thing, at the right time. We are not perfect. But at the very least we have the guts to confront each other and speak, like the leaders this world needs—how difficult that may be.

Now more than ever we have to unite and toss this one drop of reason, one drop of hope, one drop of sanity, into that forest fire that is our 21st century. Strength doesn’t come in size; it comes in numbers. So yes, one single drop will matter, if you just keep hurling it … day by day, together with an army of butterflies.

Ilja Sichrovsky is the founder and director of the Muslim Jewish Conference, a grassroots organization operating internationally.