Hanukkah marks expansion of religious freedom across Muslim world - opinion

While we still have a way to go combating antisemitism, Jewish life is able to flourish in countries across the Islamic world.

Jews and Muslims pose in front of a menorah at the Israeli pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, last Sunday on the first night of Hanukkah. (photo credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)
Jews and Muslims pose in front of a menorah at the Israeli pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, last Sunday on the first night of Hanukkah.
(photo credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)

In the countries that make up the Muslim world, the festival of Hanukkah annually demonstrates the holiday’s message: freedom to live and worship for everyone – in a very real way. From Istanbul to Dubai to Baku to Nursultan – and of course in the countries who were signatories to the Abraham Accords – the lights of the eight-branch menorah shine into cities where Jews are the minority, but where today their right to live and worship as Jews is promoted, guaranteed and protected.

It’s not what many people expect to hear, but it’s the truth.

Far too often, people look at the headlines of the day and assume that Jewish life in our countries is fraught with danger; that people are afraid to show pride in our faith. And while some of this sentiment is true, reality, however, tells us that hundreds and thousands of Jews proudly attend menorah lightings in synagogues and their private homes, as well as in the public squares of cities across the Muslim world. They are met with respect and admiration.

Despite the many ways the pandemic has disrupted day-to-day life, this Hanukkah promises to shine that same light across Muslim-majority countries which are represented in the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS). The communities we represent have seen tremendous growth and have thrived through the adversity that the past year-and-a-half has brought to everyone.

Of course, the Jewish people are not without our current challenges. There is a worrisome trend of anti-Jewish rhetoric also among some Muslims, as all too often political opinions targeting a country are turned into personal ones, targeting Jews. There is also a loaded history of expulsion, displacement and persecution of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries, which coincidently we marked this week on November 30.

 CANDLE LIGHTING at the Jewish Council of the Emirates’ Hanukkah party last year, with the participation of Hamdan Al Kindi of AC (Abrahams Consultancy) Partners, considered a close friend of the Jewish community, with Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council (L), looking on.  (credit: Jewish Council of the Emirates) CANDLE LIGHTING at the Jewish Council of the Emirates’ Hanukkah party last year, with the participation of Hamdan Al Kindi of AC (Abrahams Consultancy) Partners, considered a close friend of the Jewish community, with Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council (L), looking on. (credit: Jewish Council of the Emirates)

But that shouldn’t be viewed as the day-to-day norm for the 100,000 Jews still living in Muslim countries. What should be “normalized” is that Jews and Muslims live peacefully, side by side. We already see so much of that in our own countries, and it is an example that should be taken to heart across the world.

IN ISTANBUL, Turkey, where I am privileged to serve as a rabbi, as in previous years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a Hanukkah message congratulating the country’s Jewish citizens, and extending his best wishes. “Turkey will continue to set an example to the entire world with its vast culture of tolerance and its tradition which sees differences as richness,” he said. This sentiment has been echoed by many other government and municipal officials across the Muslim world.

It is why, while we still have a way to go combating antisemitism, and while we are struggling with an economic crisis and the outcome of a pandemic that devastated community services and participation in communal events, Jewish life is able to flourish in countries across the Islamic world.

In Nursultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, a menorah very fittingly shone in front of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation; in Dubai last year the menorah stood in front of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and this year lighting the menorah takes place every evening of Hanukkah at the Expo 2020 in Dubai. In Morocco, government officials attended the menorah lighting and expressed their support and admiration for the Jewish community. Istanbul, too, will hold a public Menorah lighting, in the historical Jewish district of Balat. 

This year, those countries – and many others across the Islamic world –  are once again hosting public menorah lightings attended by crowds of onlookers and well-wishers, both from the Jewish community and the Islamic community.

What really makes a community are its people: community members who live a Jewish life, lay leadership who assure that institutions and daily life continue to expand, and of course rabbis who provide spiritual leadership and guidance. And the people of the countries we call home have shown us who they are. They are warm, welcoming, respectful and eager to learn about our faith and culture. They are glad for our proud Jewish communities, and they recognize that diversity makes us all stronger. 

Recently, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al Nahayan visited Israel’s pavilion at the Dubai expo – and was escorted by Rabbi Levi Duchman, a member of ARIS. Anyone who doubts the vibrancy of Jewish life in Islamic countries need do no more than take a look at the pictures of Rabbi Duchman engaged in lively conversation with Muslims in kandura and gutra. A culture of mutual respect, one of learning from each other’s differences, shines forth.

Hanukkah reminds us that when we are confronted with darkness, we don’t need to push it away. We simply have to shine our own light, and the darkness will disappear. Across the Islamic world, the light of friendship and tolerance is shining bright this Hanukkah.

The writer is the Ashkenazi rabbi of Turkey and chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS). For more information, visit RabbisAlliance.org.