A mere four months after the signing of the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15, more than 70,000 Israelis—nearly one percent of the total Jewish population of Israel—have already paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Prior to the signing of the agreement on Aug. 13, Israelis and Emiratis had extremely limited contact.
Leaders in the United States, the UAE and Israel have received well-deserved praise for the success of what seems to be an overnight transition to normalized relations. But what is only now coming to light is the contribution made during the past 10 years by the UAE’s tightly knit Jewish community, consisting of a few hundred ex-pats from dozens of countries, who have been privately practicing their Judaism.
As more Israelis plan to visit the UAE, they would do well to emulate the resident Jewish community, whose respect for the Bedouin values that govern it played a key role in achieving this historic peace.
The defining virtue, as we have experienced, is “radical” hospitality.
As one Emirati friend explains: “If you have a home, are hospitable and continuously invite guests, it still remains yours even if your guests greatly outnumber you. In fact, if your goal was to share your excess resources with others, it makes the home even more yours.”
This hospitable Bedouin value system has evolved over the course of thousands of years. It did not come about as a nicety, but as a necessity to survive in the harsh desert conditions. It is so ingrained in the culture that the tradition requires Bedouin to take all guests, including enemies, into their dwelling place for three days. This is how the UAE works and how its multicultural community coexists together.
In 2019, His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance, oversaw the publication of a book titled Celebrating Tolerance, which enabled dozens of diverse religious communities in the UAE to tell their own story, and in their own words. The presence of a chapter devoted to the Jewish community, despite its relatively small numbers, represented the first official endorsement of the resident Jewish community. This is the first new Jewish community to be established in the Arab world in centuries.
But such hospitality is not a one-way street. The reciprocal obligation that a guest ought to undertake is one that we have sought to be the bedrock of the resident Jewish community: radical gratitude.
Responding to this historic hospitality of Jews in the UAE, community leaders here and international friends presented a Torah scroll to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in honor of his late father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE. This Torah is the first ever to be gifted to an Arab ruler.
Radical gratitude, however, should not be limited to the relationship with the sovereign. To be radically grateful is a mindset that must extend to all who are around us. For this past Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the Jewish community was hosted for services and meals at the Atlantis on the Palm Hotel.
The celebrations were exquisite. Hundreds of people joined in person. Hundreds more gathered online for a pre-holiday ceremony with UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba. At the close of the holiday, we called in every member of the Atlantis staff who made the event possible and gave them a standing ovation.
One Lebanese chef was so touched by this positive exposure to Jews that he recorded it on his phone and sent it to his family in Lebanon. A waiter from Pakistan and a sous-chef from Thailand did the same. Radical hospitality begets radical gratitude.
To be sure, there will be those who will mistakenly choose to “opt out” of this cycle, to take advantage of the openness that the Emiratis are extending. Our view is that they should heed the successful example of the resident Jewish community to respond with gratitude.
For Israelis, the new relationship with the UAE presents an opportunity to forge a genuinely “warm peace.” A warm peace is not just an arrangement between militaries or an agreement between banks; it is an understanding between people. The resident Jewish community has blazed the path for regional reconciliation in the hopes that others will follow.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community in the United Arab Emirates.
Michael Sussman is CEO of Sussman Corporate Security and editor of the book “Variety of Multiple Modernities: New Research Design.”
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.