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Kippah ‘not a political statement,’ says rabbi told to go bareheaded on official Saudi visit

“I didn’t take off my kippah for the month I was in the Soviet Union, and I’m sure not going to do it there,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper told JNS.

Diriyah in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Vadim_N/Shutterstock.
Diriyah in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Vadim_N/Shutterstock.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was part of a delegation that was about one-third of the way through a tour of Diriyah, a town in the Riyadh area and the original home of the Saudi royal family.

The group was about to enter Diriyah Gate, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Saudi foreign minister’s office had arranged a dinner and a light show for the bipartisan USCIRF mission, which had already met with high-level members of the kingdom’s cabinet.

“I was told there was a phone call for me,” Cooper told JNS. “I was told I was required to remove my kippah in order to continue the tour.”

Cooper, who chairs the Congress-mandated government advisory body and who was part of an official trip to the kingdom, told JNS that he believes that the call originated in the Saudi foreign minister’s office.

“It wasn’t done on a low level,” Cooper said.

The rabbi, also associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told JNS that Saudi Arabia is taking steps toward modernizing reforms, including religious freedom.

“They’re not necessarily being universally applauded,” he said.

Cooper told the person on the other end of the line, “It’s like asking someone to take off their hijab.”

He told JNS that he spent four weeks in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s visiting refuseniks. “I didn’t take off my kippah for the month I was in the Soviet Union, and I’m sure not going to do it there,” he said, of Riyadh.

Cooper told the official on the phone that wearing a the head covering is “not a political statement” for him. “It’s who I am.”

Abraham Cooper
Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Credit: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The official called back a minute later and insisted that if Cooper didn’t remove his kippah, the authorities would escort him out.

With the delegation’s full backing, Cooper refused to go bareheaded, and the mission left with him, a gesture that he found meaningful.

“One hundred percent, to me it was very moving. USCIRF is mandated by Congress to be bipartisan, but it’s obvious that religiously, politically, ideologically, we are very different,” he told JNS. “Them having my back was a moment of validation at a time of rising antisemitism.”

The incident at Diriyah Gate was especially surprising given that the rest of the mission, approved by the Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry, went smoothly, Cooper told JNS. That included meetings with the foreign affairs and interior ministries, the country’s human-rights commission and other officials.

“Regarding a recent incident in which a member of a delegation visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—Rabbi Abraham Cooper—was denied entry to Diriyah Gate, we would like to convey the following clarification: This unfortunate incident was the result of a misunderstanding of internal protocols,” the Saudi embassy in Washington stated on Tuesday.

“The matter was escalated to senior officials and Her Royal Highness the ambassador had the opportunity to speak with the rabbi,” the embassy added, of Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud. “The matter was resolved, but we respect his decision to not continue the tour. We look forward to welcoming him back to the Kingdom.”

Cooper told JNS he had not yet spoken to the ambassador but would be seeing her on Tuesday in Washington at USCIRF’s monthly meeting.

“I’m absolutely committed to going back to Saudi,” Cooper told JNS. Part of his first conversation with the ambassador “will be setting dates” for his return, he said.

The Associated Press reported of Cooper being asked to remove his religious garment that “The current Saudi sensitivity may come in part because of Israel’s grinding war targeting Hamas in the Gaza Strip.”

It reported that the U.S. State Department said it “raised our concerns with Saudi government authorities.”

‘No one should be denied access to a heritage site’

“The United States fully supports freedom of religion or belief, including the right to express beliefs through religious attire,” it added. “The United States continues to work with our Saudi counterparts on religious freedom issues and we hope the net effect of this incident will push Saudi Arabia to make further strides on these issues.”

“Praise is due to the U.S. government delegation that cut short its visit to Saudi Arabia after officials demanded one of its members, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, remove his kippah in public,” wrote the Combat Antisemitism Movement. “Zero tolerance is the only acceptable response to antisemitism.”

USCIRF stated that “After several delays to the tour, officials requested that Cooper, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, remove his kippah while at the site and anytime he was to be in public, even though the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had approved the site visit.”

“U.S. Embassy staff accompanying the USCIRF delegation supported and conveyed to Saudi officials Chair Cooper’s polite but resolute refusal to remove the kippah,” it added. “Despite their efforts, site officials escorted the delegation off the premises after chair Cooper indicated he sought no confrontation or provocation but as an observant Jew could not comply with a request to remove his kippah.”

“No one should be denied access to a heritage site, especially one intended to highlight unity and progress, simply for existing as a Jew,” Cooper stated. “Saudi Arabia is in the midst of encouraging change under its 2030 Vision. However, especially in a time of raging antisemitism, being asked to remove my kippah made it impossible for us from USCIRF to continue our visit.”

USCIRF has encouraged the State Department to “designate Saudi Arabia as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations every year since 2000,” per the commission.

“Saudi officials’ request for chair Cooper to remove his kippah was stunning and painful. It directly contradicted not only the government’s official narrative of change but also genuine signs of greater religious freedom in the kingdom that we observed firsthand,” said Rev. Frederick Davie, vice chair of the commission.

“While we appreciate the various meetings we had in the country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Human Rights Commission and other interlocutors, this unfortunate incident starkly illustrates that much more work remains to be done for Saudi Arabia to align with international legal protections guaranteeing this fundamental right,” he added.

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