Thanks to the success of the historic Abraham Accords and unleashing of wonderful initiatives that come with true peace, it is difficult to even conceive of the status quo of distrust, negative stereotypes, and quite frankly – hatred that tragically characterized the abyss that separated so many Arab countries and the Jewish State of Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, led by our founder and CEO, Rabbi Marvin Hier and I were among those who strove to break that embedded status quo.
Our first visit to the UAE (the first of many) was in 2010, which included a face-to-face meeting with the ruler in Abu Dhabi.
But it was our meeting with His Majesty King Hamad six years ago that was a true game-changer.
There were numerous commitments made during that meeting, each was fulfilled beyond our wildest expectations, each helping to break long-held beliefs and stereotypes.
King Hamad's influence
Shortly after our meeting, His Majesty authored the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance wherein an Arab head of state declared that all people have the right to pray as they see fit and even have the right not to pray. That declaration would never gather dust as it inspired leaders from the United Nations to India to Brazil to Moscow to add their names to the declaration beneath the first 400 signatures of faith leaders who joined the king’s son, Sheikh Nasser, and Rabbi Hier at a ceremony in Los Angeles. The declaration was also subject to a long analysis by Pope Francis during his recent visit to Bahrain.
At our meeting at the palace in Manama, His Majesty approved the idea that Bahraini religious leaders could be hosted by the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. We did. Two years before the Abraham Accords were signed at the White House, we hosted 24 faith leaders who flew to Jerusalem, which culminated in a wonderous celebration on the first night of Hanukkah in the Holy City.
Just three months ago, when I attended an international Interfaith Conference at the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence in Manama which was capped off by unprecedented public discourse between the pope and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University.
There are many, many, more milestones that I can attest to, but the common denominator of each breakthrough was the dignified, warm, smart, and genteel presence, support, and input of my friend, H.E. Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, chairman of the Board of Trustees of King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence.
This handsome man and respected historian was one of the people who shattered assumptions and stereotypes, not through lectures or academic papers, but through his quiet deeds, friendly words, and deep embraces. He had the same demeanor when he waited for our flight to arrive at 330 am as he did when he greeted Pope Francis. He was instantly at home during his visits to Jerusalem before and after the treaty was signed.
The import of the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance was emphasized and elevated by Shaikh Khalid and his trusted associate Betsy Mathieson, in every world capital and major university they visited. Whether in Moscow, New York, Washington, or Brazil, he always made it a point to confer with local Jewish leaders, including rabbis.
Shaikh Khalid died this past Friday, January 27th, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He was one of the unsung heroes of the long trek from hostility to civility, to friendship and peace. He was a true peacemaker and a true mensch.
Rest in peace, my dear mentor and friend.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and global director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute.