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YU co-hosts interfaith conference in Dubai with Mohamed Bin Zayed University

Emirati students greeted visiting Jewish colleagues from New York in Hebrew.

Attendees of an interfaith conference in Dubai, co-sponsored by Yeshiva University and Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities., May 3, 2023. Photo by Avi Kumar.
Attendees of an interfaith conference in Dubai, co-sponsored by Yeshiva University and Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities., May 3, 2023. Photo by Avi Kumar.

The Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai’s old city is nestled between palm-tree-lined streets and a large creek feeding into the Persian Gulf. The Holocaust exhibit that it opened in 2021—shortly after the Abraham Accords were signed—was the first in the Arab world. On May 3, it was also the site of an interfaith conference, co-sponsored by Yeshiva University and Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities.

Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, a former member of the United Arab Emirates Federal National Council and the museum’s founder, told JNS on-site during the event that it was important to have such gatherings at a time when antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise internationally.

“Religion does not have to be something that divides people,” said Al Mansoori, who co-hosted the event. “We want to revive the memory of the good times in history between Jews and Muslims and Arabs.”

In the Middle Ages, Jews and Muslims coexisted, and the Middle East was a “shrine of hope and principles,” he told JNS.

About 100 people attended the conference titled “Interacting Philosophies, Shared Friendships.” Speakers addressed shared Jewish and Muslim histories and cultural interactions with a strong focus on the Jewish medieval scholar and physician Maimonides.

Participants in an interfaith conference in Dubai, co-sponsored by Yeshiva University and Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities., May 3, 2023. Photo by Avi Kumar.

Stu Halpern, a rabbi and senior advisor to YU’s provost and deputy director of the university’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, told JNS at the Dubai event that the gathering was “only part of the evolution” that began when Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, spoke at the museum in 2021 during a commemoration on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Two years ago, who would have thought that something like this would have been possible?” he asked. “Following COVID, we have been eager to strengthen our friendships with the local Islamic and Jewish communities.”

In addition to Halpern, conference speakers included Daniel Rynhold, dean of YU’s  Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and director of its doctoral program, and a professor of Jewish philosophy; Shira Weiss, assistant director of the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership at YU; and

Ronnie Perelis, YU’s chair in Sephardic studies.

From Mohamed Bin Zayed University, Haider Hussain, a professor of linguistics with a Hebrew focus, and Ebrahim Bourshashen, director of the Center for Philosophical studies and a professor of Islamic philosophy and ethics, addressed the audience. Talks ranged in geographical subject matter from Spain to Baghdad and included discussions about Judeo-Arabic, as well as Jewish and Muslim innovations in science, medicine and philosophy.

The event took place at a museum that opened in 2014 and started displaying Jewish objects, including materials related to the Holocaust, in 2021. Previously, Al Mansoori’s collection, including a Torah that was rescued from the Holocaust, a 125-year-old handwritten letter by Theodor Herzl and Jewish-made Yemenite silver swords, was stored privately.

“The future is important, but we must also learn from the past,” Hussain, the MBZUH professor, told JNS.

The Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai. Photo by Avi Kumar.

‘Small paradigm shifts’

Henry Buch, a Holocaust survivor who attended the event and who lives in Melbourne, told JNS that Jews and Muslims believe they both came from the same background long ago. “Despite the fact that we took different religious paths, certain things, such as humanity and empathy, should be applicable to all societies and religions,” he said.

“It was nice to see dialogue and building bridges,” Liron Zalansky, Israeli consulate general of Israel in Dubai, told JNS.

Perelis, the YU Sephardic studies chair, told JNS that it is very important for people to sit down together, share food and ideas and get to know each other face to face.

“Sometimes, these casual interactions are more important than formal diplomatic gestures,” he said. “When the Emirati students first met and started speaking to our YU students in Hebrew, these small paradigm shifts are what make events like this so special.”

On Thursday, more than 600 people gathered at a hotel in Abu Dhabi—not far from the Abrahamic Family House site on Saadiyat Island—to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, marking Israel’s first official Independence Day celebration of its in the UAE.

Items from a Holocaust exhibit at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai. Photo by Avi Kumar.
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