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In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Muslims I met could not have been kinder or more respectful of my faith

What a contrast it was to the atmosphere of hate in parts of the U.S.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 30, 2015. Credit: Robert Bock via Wikimedia Commons.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 30, 2015. Credit: Robert Bock via Wikimedia Commons.
Jason Greenblatt. Source: Twitter.
Jason Greenblatt

American antisemites have a new role model from which they can learn religious tolerance, courtesy and decency.

It is the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco.

I just returned from a family vacation to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. That may sound surprising to some. I am an observant Jew and a proud supporter of Israel.

On each of my many trips to the Middle East, I face the question of whether to wear my kippah in public. I already started wearing my kippah in the UAE several years ago because the UAE has been ahead of the curve in terms of being able to be openly Jewish. Bahrain has made strong progress on this front as well.

I have always felt thoroughly comfortable in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The government officials and friends I have in both countries have always treated me with the utmost respect and warmth, knowing full well who I am and what I stand for. Still, until this trip, I had misgivings about wearing my kippah in public in those countries. It was nothing anyone there said or did. It was just a nagging feeling I had.

I took my family to Qatar and Saudi Arabia so they could meet my friends and associates, learn more about these countries, see the tremendous change unfolding there and continue to build bridges in the Arab world between Jews and Muslims.

I was not disappointed. My son and I wore our kippahs in public, and we were able to have our kosher food and Shabbat needs met. We were treated with the utmost kindness wherever we went. We walked around as proud Jews. Here and there, people took notice and approached us in friendship. In one instance, in a Riyadh mall, a man came up to us, shook our hands and said that he was so happy to see us. Elsewhere, a man approached with a big smile and asked if we were from Israel. When I told him we were American, he pointed out that he understood we were Jewish and smiled again before heading on his way.

We hosted new Qatari friends for Shabbat dinner in Doha. I blessed each of my children as I customarily do on Friday night and proudly made kiddush, the Jewish blessing over grape juice (instead of wine) at the hotel restaurant in front of others. I have done this at hotels around the world, but this was the first time I had done it openly in Qatar. The restaurant staff, who worked hard to help us with our kosher food requirements, gave our youngest daughter flowers when we departed our Doha hotel, together with a beautiful card written in Hebrew, thanking us for being there. Each of them personally signed the card.

My experience in these Arab nations stands in sharp contrast to what happened here in the U.S. while we were away.

Protesters at New York City’s Grand Central Station vociferously opposed Israel’s right to exist.

Even more vile individuals at the University of Michigan called for the murder of Jews, just as Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

And yet, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Muslims I met could not have been kinder or more respectful of my faith.

In all fairness, if they had known my positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some might have been a little cooler towards me. I fully recognize that. Yet, that would have been a reaction to my political views, not a commentary on my religious beliefs. And I would be prepared to engage them in respectful dialogue. I have been involved in countless conversations like that with Arabs throughout the region. Those conversations may be difficult and challenging, but always respectful.

How quickly things have changed.

I vividly recall my first visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, when I worked at the White House.

When I applied for a Saudi visa, the State Department offered me two choices of religion—Christian or Muslim. When I filled out “Jewish” in the “Other” column, they suggested I redo the form, leaving the religion section blank. I said no and asked them to submit it as I had filled it out. They did. It was not an issue.

When I got to Saudi Arabia on that trip, I spent a lonely Shabbat in my hotel room, eating peanut butter on rice cakes. As some of the countries in the Middle East continue to evolve in so many positive ways, Shabbat in Doha and Riyadh with my family were joyful occasions.

Jews from Israel and elsewhere are pouring into the UAE and also starting to travel to Bahrain, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar in order to do business, tour, learn about the region and develop friendships. It is a good approach. It is the way to build a better future together. Even if we may disagree on some big issues.

How discouraging it is that today in the U.S., Jews of all kinds, especially outwardly visible Jews, are experiencing a significant rise in antisemitism.

And yet, how heartwarming it is to see the many changes in the Arab world and that Jews, Muslims and Arabs are developing friendships and learning about one another.

If only the haters in the U.S., an incredible country, could recognize that the freedom and tolerance they enjoy belong to all of us, and that hate has no place anywhere.

Jason D. Greenblatt served as White House Middle East envoy in the Trump administration. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book In the Path of Abraham. Twitter: @GreenblattJD.

This article was originally published by Arab News.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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