Gulf rabbinical court to 'revive golden age' of Jewish-Muslim cooperation

‘Jewish communities are being reborn in Arab lands which for the last 70 years have been practically cleansed of any Jewish communities in most of these countries’

Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Rabbi Yehuda Sarna meets with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at ceremony in 2019 in which the crown prince was given a Torah scroll dedicated to his father’s memory.  (photo credit: RELIGION MEDIA COMPANY)
Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Rabbi Yehuda Sarna meets with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at ceremony in 2019 in which the crown prince was given a Torah scroll dedicated to his father’s memory.
(photo credit: RELIGION MEDIA COMPANY)
The establishment of a new rabbinical court for Jewish communities in the Gulf states indicates the integration of Jews into local society and an opportunity to “revive a golden age” of Jewish-Muslim understanding and cooperation, two of the court’s rabbis have said.
The establishment of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities was announced last week in a move designed to create a network of Jewish institutions to support and sustain the Jewish communities of the Gulf region.
Key amongst those institutions is the new Beth Din of Arabia, a rabbinical court to adjudicate various communal and personal status issues among the Jewish population of the Gulf states.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Yehuda Sarna who will serve as the president of the new court, and Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates Eli Abadie who will serve as its presiding rabbi, described the development as “an historic moment” and detailed the status it will hold and the various functions it will perform.
The new Beth Din of Arabia has been headquartered in Bahrain and will serve Jews in that country as well as the United Arab Emirates, and the small number of Jews present in the other Gulf countries.
Sarna said the decision was made to base the rabbinical court in Bahrain due to the longstanding relationship of the Jewish community in that country with the Bahraini government and its justice ministry.
The rabbi noted that the Riyadh Arab Agreement for Judicial Cooperation of 1983 requires recognition by its 18 signatories in the Arab world, including the Gulf states, of judicial decisions made by competent courts in other signatory states.
Rulings by the Beth Din of Arabia in Bahrain will therefore be applicable across the Gulf and enforceable by government authorities in those countries, said Abadie and Sarna.
“This dates back to the Treaty of Umar and recognition from the advent of Islam of Judaism as a bona fide, monotheistic religion and ‘people of the book’,” said Abadie, who noted that Jewish communities in Muslim lands were historically given religious autonomy to adjudicate their own personal status issues.
Abadie acknowledged that given the small size of the Jewish population in the UAE and the other Gulf states, demand for the services of the court in its initial period will not be high.
But he said its establishment was crucial to create the key infrastructure of a Jewish community, part of which is a rabbinical court.
The rabbis said that the Beth Din of Arabia will register Jewish births, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, arrange divorces if the need arises, and provide Jewish and personal status declarations for the purposes of making aliyah.
The court will not conduct Jewish conversions but will “affirm” an individual’s Jewish status if needed for admission to synagogues, schools or for other purposes, which may involve recognizing a conversion conducted elsewhere. 
The court will also serve as a rabbinical court for property disputes, akin to civil arbitration, if two parties be they Jewish or non-Jewish, agree to have their case heard in it.
Sarna said that the Beth Din of Arabia has received support and endorsement by two major Jewish institutions, the Beth Din of America associated with the modern-Orthodox community in the US, and the European Beth Din associated with the Conference of European Rabbis.
He said those institutions have helped provide Beth Din of Arabia with a framework of by-laws, protocols, record keeping and ethical guidelines for the practical operation of the court.
“The very presence of a rabbinical court is a signal of integration into local society, so exploration of how a rabbinical court interlocks with local judicial departments is really a larger question of how the Jewish community can become integrated into the fabric of Gulf countries,” said Sarna.
Abadie described the establishment of the new rabbinical court as an “historic” development, and said it had personal resonance for himself having been part of the Arabic-speaking Jewish community in Lebanon.
“Jewish communities are being reborn in Arab lands that for the last 70 years have been practically cleansed of any Jewish communities in most of these countries,” said the rabbi.
“It’s an historic moment, it’s meaningful and very significant to start a Jewish community in an Arab county, and in a sense relive that golden age of the Andalus era in which Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together, interacted together, exchanged ideas and philosophies, and lived peacefully,” he continued.
Abadie said he believed the new found status of Jewish communities in the Gulf where there has historically only been very small numbers of Jews, could also pave the way for the eventual reestablishment of Jewish communities in lands from where Jews were forced out.
He said that Arab leaders in the region with whom he has met have expressed an interest in the reestablishment of Jewish communities and the preservation of Jewish heritage sites, although he acknowledged that some Arab countries would need to become “more politically and socially stable” to advance such developments.
Both Sarna and Abadie recalled the dedication of a Torah scroll to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in 2019, in memory of his father and UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Sarna noted that the crown prince had been extremely concerned that all aspects of the ceremony, and the gift, concord with Jewish law, and said this was reflective of the tolerant spirit in which the new rabbinical court is being established.
“In my conversations with the crown prince, I explained to him that every single Torah scroll is almost exactly the same, letter by letter, word by word, and hasn’t changed for over 3,000 years, even among communities which have not been in communication for 2,000 years,” said Abadie.
“He was very impressed by this and said it explains the strength, perseverance and eternity of the Jewish people, and its adherence and respect for their legacy.”
It is this legacy which the Beth Din of Arabia will continue to advance, said the rabbis.