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My multicultural Shabbat in a Muslim-Arab country

Dubai was so unexpectedly open that I felt safer wearing my “kippah” there than even on the streets of New York, Toronto and London.

Candles, challah and a Kiddish cup for Shabbat. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Candles, challah and a Kiddish cup for Shabbat. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Sussman
Michael Sussman

As a Jew who often travels for business, I have observed Shabbat in Tripoli (Libya), Casablanca (Morocco), Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania), Skopje (Macedonia), London, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Washington D.C. and even unlikely places like the Serengeti, with its 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) of natural ecosystem. I observe the sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday, because Jews are commanded to unplug from the rest of the week, and it’s my time to unwind.

Still surprising to me is that of all the Shabbatot that I have experienced around the world, the most open was in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country in the Arab world—a region in which I typically have to conceal my Jewish Identity. Dubai was so unexpectedly open that I felt safer wearing my kippah there than even on the streets of New York, Toronto and London.

From my very first moment upon clearing customs, my expectations were turned on their head, as my Jewish identity was welcomed and did not have to be concealed. As I walked to the baggage carousel to collect my luggage, a woman standing in front of a sales booth sponsored by the Emirati Emaar  development company welcomed me and guessed whether I was from Israel. When I asked if it was that obvious, she said that there were eight flights arriving from Israel every day, and that everyone in Dubai is excited by the Abraham Accords.

This was starkly different from previous experiences in the Arab world. I remember conducting research in 2006 at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah and seeing American and Israeli flags painted on the ground at the entrance for people to step on as they came in. I also remember attending business meetings in Libya in 2014 with the large multinational National Oil Corporation and having to conceal my online social media, so that my Israeli identity would not be revealed.

In fact, as forewarned by Israelis, even speaking Arabic is something I am cautious about. I speak Arabic, but I always say that I learned to speak the language in Canada and never at the Hebrew University or on the streets of Jerusalem, because, whenever I mention Israel, the most common question is whether I am an agent of the Shin Bet.

Even driving from the airport was different this time around. Representatives from local tour companies stood waiting for their Israeli clientele with placards reading, “Israel tours,” as well as some in Hebrew waiting for “Shlomo” and “Herzog.”  As I fiddled around trying to get my SIM card activated, I could hear Hebrew being spoken freely, as Israelis streamed out of one of the eight planes arriving that day from the Jewish state.

Still, my biggest surprise occurred when I reached the Shabbat dinner, which was being held at a prominent hotel. Expecting the tight security measures of metal detectors, security guards and identification verification that I am accustomed to in London, Paris, Toronto and New York, I was astonished when the automatic doors slid open with none of that. When I discreetly asked the front desk manager, “Where is the Jewish dinner being held?” she smiled and in accented Hebrew wished me “Shabbat Shalom” (have a peaceful Shabbat) as she showed me the way.

This was altogether different from my experience in Istanbul just a week earlier. In Turkey, I was denied entry to synagogues, even with my Israeli passport and despite having friends in the Jewish community there. In fact, even getting the Zoom link and password to watch the synagogue service for the Jewish New Year was not possible in Istanbul because the Jewish community was afraid it would be hacked.

But in the multicultural atmosphere of Dubai, Jews from all over the world gathered and spoke of issues of importance to their community.  Ellie Cohanim, an Iranian-born American who serves as Deputy Special Envoy for Combating Anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department, spoke about the differences between anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, and how this was the historical return of Jews to the Middle East.

Ellie Abadie, a Beirut-born rabbi who founded the famous Safra Synagogue in New York and is now the new rabbi of Dubai, spoke of founding a new Jewish community. Ross Kriel, the South African-born president of the Jewish community in Dubai, spoke about the new initiatives being launched.

When people think about Dubai, one thing that often comes to mind are the large sky-scrapers and modern development. While this is no small feat, particularly in the desert, even more impressive is the system that allowed its establishment, which is based on multiculturalism, tolerance and coexistence. Those values are a vital factor, since almost 90 percent of the residents of Dubai are foreigners who must work together.

Prior to the signing of the Abraham Accords, it was illegal to even speak to an Israeli. And yet, within three months of the peace agreement, more than 50,000 Israelis have already visited Dubai. From agricultural and medical to commerce innovation, relations with Israel are being seen by the UAE and other countries in the Arab world as having many benefits.

After the signing of the ill-fated Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel’s iconic statesman, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, shared his utopian vision of “the new Middle East.”

Well, Mr. Peres, this is it, and Europe had better sit up and take notice.

The writer is CEO of Sussman Corporate Security and editor of the book “Variety of Multiple Modernities: New Research Design.”

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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