The miracle of Jewishness in Dubai and UAE

January 31, 2022


A new dawn rises in the Middle East and with it the possibility of Jews and Muslims reaching out to each other as God’s creations and Abraham’s children.

The images of my trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi flash before me with such rapidity that I try and capture them in writing with the same alacrity.

There is the image of me, an Orthodox Jew, walking with my wife and children through Dubai’s streets with our yarmulkes and tzitzit as if we're on the streets of Los Angeles or New York, walking through a Muslim Arab country that is both modern and devout. No one says a word except for perhaps words of greetings as they welcome us in Hebrew. At no time did we feel anything other than safe.

There is the image of the president of the Jewish community and its principal founder, my former student at Oxford Ross Kriel, praying alongside me the Mincha afternoon prayer in the shadow of the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque after a visit to one of the most magnificent Muslim edifices on earth, where we were welcome as esteemed fellow sons of Abraham.

There is the image of Gil, who owns the excellent TLV kosher restaurant, saying kaddish for his mother at a new minyan established by him and Ross with the government’s blessing.

There is the image of Elazar Cohen, the head of the Israel Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020, organizing the most moving ceremony, filled with Jewish and Arab dignitaries, to the six million on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and one of the first commemorations to take place in a Muslim and Arab land.

There is the image of my speaking at The Palms Synagogue, under Ross’s leadership, to a crowd of Jewish Emiratis and others from all over the world, on the Sabbath as the community’s scholar-in-residence. Just before my speech the worshipers recited the prayer for the government of the United Arab Emirates, principally composed in about 2013 by Ross, followed immediately by the prayer for the State of Israel. The juxtaposition of a prayer for the armed forces of the UAE and the IDF being recited by the Jewish community side by side is so miraculous as to be astonishing.

And finally, there is the image, this past Sunday, of joining the Jewish community of the Emirates in welcoming President Isaac Herzog in Abu Dhabi, who arrived with his wife, Michal, at his side.

All these images are miracles, the product of the extraordinary Abraham Accords, for which Herzog publicly thanked US President Donald Trump and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for forging alongside the courageous government of the UAE led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

I was on the White House lawn when the accords were signed in September of 2020. But it was not until I visited the UAE that I understood the full magnitude of the unprecedented agreement.

This is not the peace treaty with Egypt or Jordan with cold ties between the resident populations. No, this is something completely different. You can live, visit and pray openly as a Jew in the United Arab Emirates amid an Islam that is warm, moderate, welcoming, sophisticated and devout.

In my time in Dubai and the UAE I must confess to a feeling of significant gratitude to its government for the extraordinary nature of its warm welcome to Jewish visitors and respect for, and encouragement of, the growing Jewish community.

Walking through Ross Kriel’s joint venture with Emirates Airlines, the absolutely incredible Kosher Arabia, I had to pinch myself as I asked, Is it really possible that Dubai is a city that prepares daily kosher meals in a state-of-the-art facility for a world-famous Arab airline? And as we drove the sand dunes outside Dubai, I asked the same question about the exquisite kosher food waiting in a tent for us after a camel ride from Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, Ross’s wife, another premier UAE kosher catering company. Dubai now has no less than four full-time kosher restaurants.

So why does this all so excite me?

Because since my days as rabbi at Oxford University in the 90s, when we regularly hosted so many Muslim students at our Shabbat meals and speaker programs, including scions of leading and royal Middle Eastern families, my dream has been kinship and brotherhood between Muslims and Jews, Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Unlike the peace treaties between Egypt and Jordan, which were political but never trickled down to the public, the UAE provides a top-to-bottom template for the possibility of a true and lasting peace between Arabs and Jews not just in the Middle East but all over the world.

What can be said about a country that builds one of the largest mosques in the world and has a hashtag as you enter, comprised of giant letters, that says “#TOLERANCE”? And what can be said about a country that invites the president of the State of Israel and welcomes him with the playing of “Hatikvah” with an honor guard?
I’ll tell you what can be said: that it should be celebrated, applauded, appreciated and emulated.

Dubai and the UAE give the lie to those Islamophobes who say that Islam is inherently violent or intolerant. And the prosperity and sophistication of the UAE give the lie to those who say that Islam is not a forward-looking religion capable of incomparable modern vision.

There can be no question that Islam is being hijacked by all too many who will murder in its name. We know all too well the names of these violent groups that defame Islam, from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Taliban and ultimately to the murderous mullahs of Iran who call daily for Israel’s annihilation.

But the response to those who defile a great world religion with their gore and with their promises of genocide against the Jews should not only be condemnation but substitution. Elevate the UAE example of a shining light of Islam that is welcoming to Jewry, tolerant, open, forward-looking and immensely prosperous. The UAE’s peace treaty with Israel brings luster to a great world religion that is the world’s second-most practiced faith.

A few weeks ago I wrote in these pages that Muslims are our brothers and sisters and that Islam is a great world religion that took in Jewish refugees from Catholic Spain and Portugal after the infamous expulsions. A reader wrote that I am mistaken. That, firstly, Muslims are, at best, our cousins, and second, Islam is not a religion at all but a violent political ideology.

It is disgusting attacks like these that show faithlessness to countries like the UAE that have taken grave risks for peace and which have extended to the Jewish people the warm hand of brotherhood and friendship.
Firstly, of course, Muslims are our brothers. We all share one Father in Heaven. It makes us siblings rather than cousins.

And second, you need to look no further than the example of Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of all time, who served as the personal physician to the greatest Muslim ruler of all time, Saladin, to see the incredible possibilities of Muslim-Jewish kinship and cooperation. A new dawn rises in the Middle East and with it the possibility of Jews and Muslims reaching out to each other as God’s creations and Abraham’s children.

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