In this era of strife and division in the Middle East and within the Jewish community, it was refreshing to be part of a historic delegation of 12 members of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition (ZRC) who were warmly welcomed in the UAE, Bahrain and Israel.
During our 10-day mission, we were surprised and delighted to repeatedly hear words like “tolerance,” “peaceful coexistence,” “common ground” and “bridges of trust and cooperation” from both leaders and ordinary citizens alike. It was a glimpse of hope and unity.
Our mission sought to celebrate and discuss the Abraham Accords and build bridges between the Jewish communities of the U.S., Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. While most American and Israeli Jews approved of the Abraham Accords, the rejoicing may have been muted by the COVID pandemic and anti-Trump or anti-Netanyahu sentiments.
Although former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were the leaders who officially signed the accords, the relationship between the Emirati, Bahraini, Israeli and American people had been nurtured for decades.
This was emphasized in our meetings with Dr. Tal Becker, a legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Dr. Ali Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Manara Center. Dr. Al Nuaimi told us, “The Abraham Accords were not just a government agreement. It was not just about the public sector. It was also about the private sector and people-to-people engagement. To build peace in the region, you can’t just sign a paper. You have to prepare your people. Because of the previous relationships with Israel, our people on the ground were already on board by the time the Accords were signed.”
Ambassador Marc Sievers, inaugural director of the AJC’s Abu Dhabi office, said of Jewish life in the UAE, “You can go down the street with a kippah on your head without getting hit in the head,” which is not the case in some parts of Europe and the U.S. When we met with Chabad Rabbi Levi Duchman, he proudly described his role in building a Jewish infrastructure in the UAE, such as providing kosher certification to nine establishments.
The ZRC rabbis could never have imagined the seemingly impossible scenario of attending a Shabbat dinner in a Muslim country with Emirati natives and Jewish people from around the world.
One of our most remarkable experiences was a tour of the Holocaust Gallery at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai, led by Ahmed Al Mansoori. As the museum’s founder, Ahmed focuses on “the promotion of multiculturalism, tolerance and positive coexistence through better understanding of different peoples.”
He said that part of his mission is “pushing for closer relations with the State of Israel, and for different cultures to work together.” It is important, he asserted, to show non-Jews that Jews have lived in the Middle East for a very long time in order to counter the false narrative that “European governments felt guilty after the Holocaust and decided to give land to the refugees, but rather than giving the Jews a piece of Europe, they invaded the Middle East and gave the Jews land from that part of the world instead.”
In stark contrast to Holocaust deniers, Ahmed and other Emiratis affirm that the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish experience. Ahmed himself participated in the March of the Living and walked through the gates of Auschwitz with his arms around an Israeli Jewish man wearing a kippah.
In Bahrain, we met with Sheikh Khalifa and two indigenous Bahraini Jews, Ibrahim Nonoo and Nancy Khedouri. Ibrahim is the first cousin of Houda Nonoo, the first woman and first Jew to serve as the Bahraini ambassador to the U.S. Nancy is the only Jewish member of the Shura Council, part of the upper house of the Bahraini parliament. At Beit Knesset Aseret HaDibrot, an essentially defunct synagogue in Manama, the ZRC rabbis suggested that the institution conduct services with their own minyan of rabbis—female rabbis leading synagogue services in a Muslim country!
What made the ZRC delegation unique was that we were united in our love of Israel and Judaism despite the diversity of our beliefs, practices, gender and denominations. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis were included and four were female. In addition to our differences in religious observance, we also represented a range of political positions from left to right in both the American and Israeli contexts. We hailed from the cities and suburbs of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the New York metropolitan area, Washington, D.C., and the east and west coasts of Florida.
While many American Jewish leaders have become increasingly critical of Israel over the past decade, the ZRC rabbis resist the tendency to “cancel” individuals and governments with whom they may disagree and encourage open dialogue.
In Israel, the ZRC delegation met with members of Knesset and Foreign Ministry officials, as well as Natan Sharansky, Tal Becker, Rabbi David Stav and Gil Troy.
We met with MKs Mickey Levy, Elazar Stern, Michael Mordecai Biton, Dan Illouz and Amir Ohana. We had frank and open exchanges with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Gulf States Adviser Michal Schwartz, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu.
These people represent a range of political positions, from right-wing members of the current government to left-wing members of the opposition.
Despite the religious and political differences between Eliyahu and most ZRC rabbis, we welcomed the open dialogue on his opposition to the egalitarian section of the Kotel. Eliyahu met with us despite criticism from his own camp.
A highlight of our mission to Israel was the hour spent with Netanyahu and his adviser Ron Dermer. Netanyahu took questions and discussed judicial reform and other challenges facing Israel, including Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. Many of the ZRC rabbis do not support Netanyahu’s government—a few of us were planning to join the demonstrations against the government’s extensive judicial reform proposals—but our willingness to sit at the same table with opponents provided a glimmer of hope and unity.
The 12 ZRC rabbis were moved by our experiences. Inspired by this historic interdenominational rabbinic delegation to the Middle East, we look forward to inspiring others with our story of hope and tolerance upon our return to the United States.