The Arab world is leading the fight against anti-Semitism | Opinion

March 30, 2022

By Sarah Cohen

As the world watched Europe erupt in the worst violence since World War II, 60 young Moroccans and Israelis gathered in Marrakech to develop people-to-people diplomacy initiatives and engage in intercultural dialogue. Less than two years after the signing of the Abraham Accords, a new generation of Arabs committed to changing the narrative about Jews and Israel across their societies is emerging. These developments offer immense hope for the future of the Middle East. Recent years have seen an alarming increase in violence against Jews. Efforts to delegitimize Israel remain strong, and data show a decline in Holocaust literacy in the United States and growth in Holocaust denial and distortion in Europe. Vladimir Putin has characterized his invasion of Ukraine — and targeting its Jewish president — as an attempt to “denazify” the country.

But in the Middle East, the region most frequently associated with anti-Semitism today, leaders from grassroots to government are building a new society based on tolerance and mutual understanding. The Arab world is defining a new narrative. We should look to it to lead us in fighting hate. From Morocco to the UAE, countering violent extremism takes many forms. Morocco, a monarchy, has more than 200,000 civil-society organizations, including Mimouna. Founded by young non-Jewish Moroccans to celebrate Moroccan Jewish heritage, Mimouna was instrumental in the Marrakech gathering. Speaking on a panel in March, El Mehdi Boudra, Mimouna founder and chairman, explained how he, together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, developed a Holocaust curriculum to be taught to Arabs, by Arabs and within the Arab context.

The panel also included Dr. Ali Al Nuaimi, chairman of the UAE Federal National Council’s Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee, and chairman of Hedayah, the UAE’s leading institute for countering violent extremism. I met Dr. al Nuaimi while accompanying a group of scholars from the U.S. Holocaust Museum to the Emirates. The delegation spoke to young Emirati diplomats-in-training about how to teach the Holocaust and visited the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai, home to the first and only Holocaust exhibit in the Arab world. Ahmed Al Mansoori, the museum’s founder, is committed to educating Arabs about the Holocaust as one of the darkest stains on human history, but also as a lesson for how to spot radicalization early on and counter it through education. The UAE has a long history of combating radicalization, removing extremist ideologies from schools and mosques, largely because of Dr. al Nuaimi’s efforts. Both Morocco and the UAE are building initiatives to teach tolerance and combat hate. These initiatives formed organically in both countries and for completely different reasons. The Moroccan participants in Marrakech consider the Jewish community integral to their heritage, recalling stories from their parents and grandparents about their Jewish neighbors and friends. As one participant said, “We should have recognized Israel as the Jewish state a long time ago, so it was obvious we would join the normalization.” Tolerance is central to Emirati identity. The government named 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” announcing the establishment of the Abrahamic Family House, a multi-faith complex home to a church, mosque, synagogue and communal spaces. It is remarkable to see these vastly different societies arrive at the same conclusion independently. Bahrain is uniquely positioned to fight anti-Semitism. Home to the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf, Bahraini Jews can now practice Judaism openly as a result of normalization. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett just completed the first-ever visit of an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain. Perhaps most encouraging are the latest comments by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We don’t look at Israel as an enemy . . . [but] as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together. . . . But we have to solve some issues before we get to that,” he said. Saudi Arabia is laying the groundwork for normalization with the Jewish state, signaling a major shift to the Islamic world.

To be sure, the Middle East has a long way to go. Hatred of and violence against Jews and the Jewish state remain common. Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian textbooks, to name a few, still spread flagrant stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews. Israel continues to face existential threats from Iran and its proxies. But the reforms in Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia prove that narratives can evolve if society is willing to change them. Dr. al Nuaimi believes people-to-people diplomacy is the best way to build tolerance and mutual respect. The Israeli-Moroccan gathering suggests he is right. If we are to defeat anti-Semitism, governments and civil society must commit to building people-to-people connections on a broad scale. The Arab world is leading the way.

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