US special envoy: UAE, Bahrain shine a light on world during Hanukkah

“The amount of coexistence you see in the Emirates and the religious pluralism and tolerance you see walking the streets of the UAE is profound," said the US official.

US Deputy Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism Ellie Cohanim in Dubai at the Hanukkah candle lighting. (photo credit: COURTESY ELLI COHANIM)
US Deputy Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism Ellie Cohanim in Dubai at the Hanukkah candle lighting.
Jews are receiving a warm welcome in the United Arab Emirates, US Deputy Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Ellie Cohanim said Monday. She recently spoke to members of the local community and Jews and Israelis who have come from all over the world to Dubai. “When you work on combating antisemitism you spend so much time fighting the darkness and this is all about shining the light and it is a model society for the region and the world,” she says.
“The amount of coexistence you see in the Emirates and the religious pluralism and tolerance you see walking the streets of the UAE is profound. The warm welcome Jews are receiving here is incredible and a historic moment for all of us to observe.” This is a sentiment many have echoed over the last two weeks as Jews and Israelis have been welcomed in the UAE in the wake of the Abraham Accords. Cohanim’s trip to the UAE was a long time coming during a difficult year with COVID travel restrictions. As part of the office led by Elan Carr, the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, Cohanim focuses on antisemitism in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.
She is well-placed for this work because her family was forced to flee Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She speaks with passion about the changes that are happening now in the region and which have led to a new opening and tolerance for Jews. She met with Rabbi Elie Abadie who recently moved to Dubai to serve as the community’s rabbi. Abadie, who was born in Beirut, is a scholar and expert who is an example of the international aspect of the Jewish community of the UAE.
In contrast to Bahrain where there has been an organized Jewish community since 1860, much of the Jewish life and embrace of Hanukkah celebrations in the UAE is new. She also met Ross Kriel of the Jewish Community of the Emirates and Rabbi Levi Duchman of the Jewish Community of the UAE, the leading heads of the Jewish communities there.
Cohanim says she attended communal dinners and the Hanukkah lighting and has seen how coexistence is thriving. “I was witness to that on Friday at Abadi and then Saturday with Levi Duchman of Chabad of Dubai who had a Hanukkah lighting at the Burj al Khalifa with a concert and Jewish music playing in this incredible public space and many Israelis and Jews present and celebrating in an Arab country. Part of the historicity of the Abraham Accords is that we knew there is a direct correlation – with normalization of relations with Israel will be a corresponding decrease in antisemitism in any society.”
She says what is extraordinary is the government initiatives. The leadership of the UAE has announced plans for an Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi that will house a mosque, church and synagogue. “I was privileged to see it,” she says.
“If you think, throughout the region, what we see since the 1940s is the closing of Jewish synagogues and Jewish community centers and here in the Emirates you find synagogues opening and it is thanks to the leadership of Sheikh [Khalifa bin Zayed Al] Nahyan and President [Donald] Trump and Jared Kushner and to change history and allow this reunion of what I call ‘cousins and brothers and sisters.’” The Jewish presence in the region dates back thousands of years and Jews are indigenous to the Middle East, she notes, referencing the 800,000 who fled, or were forced from their homes in Arab and Muslim countries following the creation of Israel. Prior to that “Jews and Arabs had warm relations for many years as friends, neighbors and business associates, but the course of history unfortunately meant 800,000 Jews were forced to flee their homes.”
This shift should be treasured, she says. “We dreamt about peace for our children and grandchildren and to see this in our lifetimes is truly historic.” She visited the Crossroad of Civilizations Museum in Dubai and met Ahmed al Mansoori who runs the museum. The Dubai-based museum recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Heritage Center for Middle East and North Africa Jewry in Jerusalem. Cohanim made sure to visit all aspects of the Jewish community of the UAE, including community leader Solly Wolf, who has been based there for many years, as well as the Chabad villa there, which is now in Dubai. “There is a flourishing of the Jewish community and thousands of Jews will want to come and participate in all the good here,” she says.
The groundwork for this coexistence and flourishing welcome for Jews has been the UAE’s embrace of tolerance over the last decades. This shift became pronounced most recently as the country has revised its curriculum, she notes. “This is a society that was able to take the bold leadership step of signing the Abraham Accords and normalizing relations, and if you look at all the good work the leadership has taken, it is easy to understand how they created such a tolerant society that was able to take this step towards peace in the region.” People-to-people relations are helping underpin these new relations.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is also breaking new paths of peace. The King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence signed a Memorandum of Understanding in October with Carr. Bahrain also had a Jewish ambassador to the US between 2008 and 2013 – Houda Noono. Nonoo’s appointment as a Jewish woman was unprecedented in the region at the time. “Truly the UAE and Bahrain are models for the world,” says Cohanim.
The visibility of Jews and their safety is also important. They are safer in the Gulf than in Europe, she says. “I think that if the leadership of the Emirates and Bahrain and other countries such as Morocco and Sudan, if they can exhibit what coexistence really looks like, they have this opportunity to do that, they have this opportunity to show what it means for Jews to practice Judaism safely and not worry about being targeted for being Jews.” Educational materials are important, and she suggests that this might become a light for the region to follow in making sure textbooks teach tolerance. This would enable educational material that teaches the next generation of children to grow up with values of pluralism and tolerance.