Saudi Arabia and Bahrain believe the road to US evangelicals runs through the Jews.
That, at least, is one of the takeaways that comes from a conversation with Rabbi Marc Schneier, the rabbi of the tony Hampton Synagogue in New York who spends a good deal of time in the Persian Gulf countries as head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization that promotes Jewish-Islamic ties.
“I’ve been asked by the Saudis and the Bahrainis to help create a relationship between them and the Evangelical community in the US,” he said in an interview in Jerusalem on a lengthy stopover to and from the Gulf States, adding that this is a recognition on their part of how influential the Evangelical community is in the US.”
Schneier, who sits on the board of a number of interfaith institutes set up over the last decade by five of the six Persian Gulf emirates, said this interest in the Evangelical community is a new phenomenon “over the last few months, after [US President Donald] Trump. You cannot ignore estimates that there are between 80 to 100 million Christian Evangelicals [in the US]. They are Trump’s base of support.”
Schneier said that in March he will be leading a group of top Evangelical pastors from the US to Baku, Azerbaijan. Just as Evangelicals are pro-Israel, Schneier said, Azerbaijan is a pro-Israel Muslim state. “So if you are going to begin a process of reconciliation between Evangelicals and Muslims, the best country to begin with is Azerbaijan.”
Schneier, who has been involved in interfaith dialogues for years, said that a “growing conflict in the inter-religious world is the chasm between Evangelical Christians and Muslims, particularly in the United States.”
He said that while there are definitely political considerations involved in the Persian Gulf states’s interest in ties with the Evangelicals, “I think there are also inter-religious considerations. I think they are genuinely concerned about presenting Islam in a very different way.”
Schneier was named earlier this month as named a special adviser to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, with a dual mandate of advising him in the building of a new interfaith center in Manama, and helping him “grow and preserve” Bahrain’s Jewish community.
Currently, Schneier said, there are 37 Jews in the kingdom. Schneier said that after he accepted the appointment, he told Khalifa, “Your Majesty, one thing I guarantee you, if you establish relations with Israel, you’ll have so many Jews here you won’t know what to do with them.”
Schneier predicted that Bahrain will formally establish relations with Israel within the year.
“I predict that in 2019 you will see the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and one or two Gulf states. I think there are many horses in the race, but I predict Bahrain will be the first, and another dark horse is Qatar,” he said.
Schenier, who travels frequently to both countries, said that Qatar used to be seen as “the bad boy” in the Gulf Cooperation Council because of alleged funding for terrorists. Yet today, he said, it is the country most transparent in working with Israel.
“They are working in Gaza “not only with the blessing of the Israelis, but at the request of the Israelis,” he said. “You see, there is a working relationship between Israel and the government of Qatar regarding the Palestinian crisis.”
As informal ties are warming up between Israel and the Gulf States, Schneier said that “there is some wishful thinking in Israel that the Gulf States no longer care about the Palestinians. I can tell you this is anything but the case.”
Schneier said, however, that he has detected a change of nuance, and whereas in the past the Gulf leaders were saying that Israel and the Palestinians need to work things out between them, and then they will discuss normalizing relations with Israel, now there is a different tone.
“Now they are saying, let Israel and the Palestinians become engaged in arriving at a solution, and then simultaneously we can discuss establish relations with Israel,” he said.
Another widely held misconception, Schneier said, is that the driving force behind the Persian Gulf’s interest in ties with Israel is the Iranian threat. Rather, he maintained, the main motivation has to do with the economy.
“Many of these Gulf States are facing an existential threat economically, in terms of the lowered demand for oil,” he said. “How many times have I heard from the Saudi and Qatari leadership, and others, ‘Rabbi, with our wealth and Israel’s brain trust and technology, we could build the most powerful region in the world today.
“They have two existential concerns, the economic concern and challenge, and the Iranian threat,” he continued. “Because of that they are moving closer to Israel, and because of that they are focused on intensely cementing their relationship with the United States and with the Trump administration – and the outreach to the Evangelical community helps cement that.”