Freedom of religion defeating tyranny - Hanukkah and the World Cup

Jewish visitors received a warm welcome in Qatar - we should be thankful for the beautiful display of freedom of religion during the World Cup.

 ABBI ELI CHITRIK watches a World Cup match, wearing a traditional Orthodox Jewish hat, even as a Muslim wearing a keffiyeh is among the other fans sitting nearby. (photo credit: Rabbi Mendy Chitrik)
ABBI ELI CHITRIK watches a World Cup match, wearing a traditional Orthodox Jewish hat, even as a Muslim wearing a keffiyeh is among the other fans sitting nearby.
(photo credit: Rabbi Mendy Chitrik)

The world watched as a small nation won one unlikely victory after another. They accomplished what no one thought was possible and they did it while proudly expressing their faith on the field.

Of course, I’m talking about Morocco’s football team but I could just as well be talking about the Maccabees, in ancient Judea, whose victory over the powerful Syrian-Greek army we will celebrate on Hanukkah, which began last night, as the World Cup Final was being played in Qatar.

Underdogs inspire us all

There’s something about an underdog that excites us; inspires us. And when Morocco, with very few star players, defeated Portugal to advance to the semifinals, they were the team with the longest odds in 40 years to do so.

So, of course, the world watched. And the world was inspired as – after their heartbreaking defeat to reigning champions France – they prayed on the field, expressing the same faith in God after their loss as they had expressed after each of their improbable victories.

As the chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS), this public expression of faith by our neighbors is heartening in and of itself. But that wasn’t all that took place in Qatar.

 Searching for kosher food ahead of the Qatar FIFA World Cup. (credit: Rabbi Mendy Chitrik) Searching for kosher food ahead of the Qatar FIFA World Cup. (credit: Rabbi Mendy Chitrik)

10,000 Jewish fans in Qatar

As a million football fans planned to travel to Qatar, including some 10,000 Jewish fans, we prepared to welcome them. Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding in New York initiated what would become a comprehensive project to provide Jewish fans with what they’d need while in the Middle East – just as the rabbis of ARIS do each day for our communities throughout the region, across the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf, Africa, and beyond; from Turkey to Tunisia, from the UAE to Azerbaijan, and yes, Morocco, as well.

The 2022 World Cup saw the establishment of the first kosher kitchen in Qatar, from which we served kosher sandwiches and challah for Shabbat, prepared under the supervision of my son, Rabbi Eli Chitrik. We also provided other Jewish resources for travelers, putting up mezuzot, pointing tourists to where packaged kosher items could be found in local supermarkets and assisting with many other logistical needs for Jewish football fans.

Many in the media have attempted to sensationalize the World Cup in Qatar, painting a picture of a place where Jews did not feel welcome. My son Eli, who – dressed in his traditional black fedora and with his tzitzit proudly visible – attended several matches in stadiums with tens of thousands of people, alongside Qataris in thobe and ghutra, would disagree with that assertion.

Yes, there have been instances of intolerance, as is sadly the case throughout the world. But these are vastly outweighed by the warm welcome Jewish fans and the rabbis who are in Qatar serving them have experienced.

As we begin the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of freedom of religion over tyranny, and as we celebrate the beautiful display of freedom of religion during the World Cup, we have much to be thankful for, as public expressions of faith and religious practice are more and more not only tolerated but welcomed and celebrated throughout the world.

The writer serves as the Ashkenazi rabbi of Turkiye and chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States. Follow him on Twitter @mchitrik.