How the UAE-Israel deal showcases tolerance for Jewish faith

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: It’s important to understand how just being Jewish is seen as controversial throughout the region.

JEWISH MEMBERS OF the visiting Israeli and American delegations (including National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, second right) hold a morning minyan this week in Abu Dhabi. (photo credit: COURTESY RAPHAEL AHERN/TIMES OF ISRAEL)
JEWISH MEMBERS OF the visiting Israeli and American delegations (including National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, second right) hold a morning minyan this week in Abu Dhabi.
The new agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has been underpinned by a tolerance and support for the small Jewish community in the UAE in recent years. During the recent flight to the UAE, Israelis were greeted with a morning minyan, or Jewish prayer, at a hotel and a Torah from the local community. This was a unique event and showcases how being Jewish was also being normalized, instead of the too common refrain in the Middle East where Jews have been expected to hide their faith or need police protection for their religious sites.
For many years it has been normal to expect that anti-Israel views in the Middle East are also linked to anti-Jewish rhetoric and antisemitic violence. For instance, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have an official slogan calling for “death to Israel, curse the Jews.” This hatred never got them critiqued as antisemitic by Western diplomats, and the group’s leader even published an op-ed in The Washington Post in May.
Traveling in the Middle East for Jews has often meant hiding one’s identity or taking for granted the fact that one cannot ask for kosher food, cannot pray, cannot wear a Star of David necklace or a head covering. Now that may be changing, as the UAE has showcased not only diplomatic relations but is pushing religious tolerance as part of an official policy. This is different from the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, where coexistence and tolerance for Jewish history has never been an integral part of the relationship.
The acceptance and mainstreaming of antisemitism in the Middle East, often excused as “anti-Zionism,” became so accepted over the past 100 years that it not only became entwined with traditional European antisemitism, but has now even been exported to Europe. Attacks on synagogues and Jewish places in Europe by terrorists are an example of this. A protest in Sweden this week by far-right Islamic groups included the phrase “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews,” a reference to a massacre of Jews in the seventh century. In 2015 in Antwerp, soccer fans chanted “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” exposing how Nazi-like themes are now combined with anti-Israel terrorist themes. In 2019 the BBC was accused of trying to cover up Gaza-based antisemitism by translating “Yahud” as “Israelis,” even where the Gazan has clearly referred to hatred of Jews.
The origins of the hatred of Jews in the Middle East and the combining of European antisemitism with local religious views go back more than 100 years to the era of the Damascus blood libel. From there Muslim Brotherhood networks developed that helped create Hamas, whose covenant includes references to the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and accusations that Jews are behind capitalism, communism, the French Revolution and Russian Revolution. This week the Iranian supreme leader tweeted attacks on the “Jewish member of Trump’s family,” a reference to Jared Kushner.
The UAE deal helps to show that this intolerance is not the only way forward. It’s important to understand how just being Jewish is seen as controversial throughout the region. In Morocco Islamists protested a film that depicted the history of the Jewish community in the country in 2013. A firebomb was thrown at a Jewish school in Tunisia in 2018, the latest attack since the Jewish community in the island of Djerba was targeted in 2002. In Turkey a firebomb was thrown at a synagogue in 2019, and the Neve Shalom Synagogue was attacked in 1986, 1992 and 2003. In May a Jewish tomb was allegedly vandalized in Iran.
However, in recent years there has been more good news. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue has been restored in Egypt in recent years. The Tomb of Nahum has also been restored in northern Iraq. There have been new movies and recognition of Jewish communities across the region. There have been op-eds from Jewish leaders in the Gulf, including in Arab News, and also meetings with Jewish leaders and rabbis in Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and elsewhere. In Turkey the Grand Synagogue of Edirne has been restored. The Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Lebanon has also been renovated.
These are good signs. It shows that from Morocco to Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, the Gulf, and even Iran, there are attempts to show and even increase tolerance for the Jewish community and Jewish history.
There are many examples of the opposite, however. Jews have been persecuted in Yemen in the past decades, and the few remaining have been smuggled out. High hopes about Jews being able to return or refurbish a synagogue in Libya have been dashed. A Jewish archive in Iraq is at the center of a controversy over its ownership. There are concerns over destruction of Jewish sites in Syria’s civil conflict. Extremism in Baghdad has made it difficult to discuss anything Jewish except in the Kurdish Region, where there is widespread tolerance for Jews and Jewish history. Jewish prayer, openly or in public, is still widely seen as controversial, including Jewish visits to tombs and sites in places like Jordan and Egypt. The idea that a Jew might travel the Middle East freely with a kippah on his head, the way a Sikh might wear a turban in Canada or a Muslim woman might wear a hijab in the UK, is not yet possible.
This acceptance, as normal, of a situation that is highly abnormal is a feature solely of the Middle East. Generally, Jews can travel most places in the world and feel free to be Jewish. Only in the Middle East is it considered controversial. I’ve known over the years Jews who worked as aid workers in Jordan and Yemen who had to cover up any indication of being Jewish. I also know of examples of Jews who worked with migrants in the UK being told that they cannot even speak Hebrew or have Hebrew letters because it might “offend” immigrants from the Middle East. Such levels of hatred for Hebrew, for any outward displays of being Jewish, are shameful but are too often accepted.
THE UAE agreement may be a turning point. Showcasing acceptance of not only Israel but of Jews is a step in the right direction.
This is part of a wider turning point in the Middle East in the fight against extremism. A general consensus is emerging in the Gulf and among countries linked to the Gulf, such as Jordan and Egypt and northern Iraq, that extremism can be rolled back, and the years of terrorism and intolerance that grew out of the 1970s and 1980s will no longer be taken for granted and not opposed.
The concepts taking root argue that tolerance must be taught from a young age, and that schools should not be surrendered to religious extremists who infiltrate them with ideas of hate that then percolate up.
These small points of light and hope are a positive sign. As someone who has traveled widely in the region, from Senegal to Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey, I see it is a welcome development. To see antisemitic books, or books praising Adolf Hitler, no longer on display; to see Jewish religious issues, such as kosher food and the freedom to pray, being accepted and held up as aspects of one of the region’s religions, as in centuries past, is a welcome sign.
It is unfortunate it took so long to get to this point.
The question now is whether Western diplomats will finally hold the intolerant voices to account and demand they stop pushing antisemitism, both in the West and in this region. Stop telling people to hide their Hebrew necklace, and instead tell the terrorists and others to stop harassing people for their religion.