An interdenominational delegation of 12 members of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition (ZRC) just returned from an historic mission to the Middle East, where they were warmly welcomed and hosted as guests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Israel from June 21-29. The Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis hailed from the cities and suburbs of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the New York Metropolitan Area, Washington, DC, and the East and West Coasts of Florida; 4 of the 12 rabbis were female.
The major impetus for this delegation was to celebrate and discuss the impact of the Abraham Accords, as well as to build bridges between the Jewish communities of the US, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. The Abraham Accords, also known as the Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations between the UAE and Israel, were announced on August 13, 2020. On September 11, Bahrain announced normalization of relations with Israel. Sudan followed suit on October 23, and Morocco signed the accords on December 10.
While many American Jewish leaders have become increasingly critical of Israel over the past decade, which has led to a rift between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, the ZRC rabbis resist the tendency to ‘cancel’ individuals and governments with whom they may disagree; instead, they encourage open dialogue with those who hold different religious beliefs and political positions.
The ZRC was founded in 2020 by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Potomac, MD in the face of increasing anti-Zionist sentiments among American Jews. It is a rapidly growing network of over 600 rabbis who promote unity with Israel. Despite denominational religious differences, the ZRC brings together Jewish leaders from around the US who are united in their support of Israel and committed to promoting dialogue and building bridges between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities. ZRC rabbis are devoted to fostering a love for Israel for generations to come. One of the rabbis who participated in a panel-discussion during the delegation’s Shabbat dinner in Dubai, said that (when the time comes) she wants her gravestone to read “Loved Israel Unconditionally.” Many of her ZRC colleagues, as well as the Muslim Emiratis and Jews present, applauded this sentiment.
In Israel, the ZRC delegation met with members of the Knesset and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Natan Sharansky, Tal Becker, Rav David Stav, and Gil Troy. As a group of rabbis who oppose cancel-culture and encourage Interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, the ZRC delegates met with government officials who represent a range of political positions, from right-wing members of the current coalition to left-wing members of the opposition. The 12 rabbis met with MK Mickey Levy, MK Elazar Stern, MK Michael Mordecai Biton, MK Dan Illouz, and MK Amir Ohana. We also had frank and open exchanges of ideas with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Gulf States Advisor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Michal Schwartz, Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli, and Minister of Heritage Amichai Eliyahu. Despite the religious and political differences between Minister Eliyahu and most ZRC rabbis, the delegation welcomed the opportunity to have an open dialogue with Eliyahu regarding his opposition to the egalitarian section of the Kotel. Notwithstanding open condemnations from ultra-religious members of his constituency, Minister Eliyahu still met with the ZRC (and even issued a photo and press release of this meeting), thereby giving some legitimacy to non-Orthodox rabbis. A highlight of the ZRC’s mission to Israel was the hour spent with Ron Dermer and PM Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister responded to questions and engaged in a discussion about judicial reform and other current issues facing Israel, including the relationship between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities.
One of the highlights of the ZRC’s time in Abu Dhabi was the Abrahamic Family House, where they were hosted by Abdullah Al Shehhi, the Project Director of UAE’s Department of Culture & Tourism, and the Director of the AFH, which contains a mosque, church, synagogue, and interfaith educational center. The mission of the Abrahamic Family House is in keeping with the pioneering vision of UAE’s President to advance the causes of multiculturalism and tolerance.
Another highlight was the Manara Center: Regional Center for Coexistence. Founded in March 2023, this center is the result of a historic partnership between the UAE government and the ADL (Anti-Defamation League). It organizes educational programs to foster closer ties and “bridges of trust and cooperation” among diverse cohorts of young people in the Gulf; it is dedicated to “creating and sustaining an infrastructure for peaceful coexistence across the Middle East, as envisioned in the historic Abraham Accords.” The center’s Chairman, Dr. Ali Al Nuaimi asserted a claim that echoed the sentiments of many Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Israelis that met with ZRC delegates: “The Abraham Accords were not just a government agreement. It was not just about the public sector; it was also about the private sector and people-to-people engagement.”
In Abu Dhabi, ZRC rabbis were also hosted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family and Minister of the State for Tolerance (a newly created position, after the Abraham Accords). ZRC rabbis also met with Ambassador Marc Sievers, the former US. Ambassador to Oman & the current Inaugural Director of the AJC’s relatively new Abu Dhabi office, his wife, Huda Raphael, their son, Sam Raphael Sievers, and AJC Abu Dhabi’s Program Director, Reva Gorelick. According to Ambassador Sievers, “Although there are limits to freedom of expression (in the UAE), you can go down the street with a kippah on your head without getting hit in the head”, as is the case in some parts of Europe and the United States these days.
Before leaving Abu Dhabi, we met with the Chabad Rabbi Levi Duchman the first resident chief rabbi of the UAE. From the time he arrived in 2014, he has seen his role as building the Jewish infrastructure in the UAE. Over the past nine years, Rabbi Duchman has played an integral role in building a mikveh, giving kosher certification to 9 kosher restaurants, providing Jewish education to over 150 Jewish children, providing Shabbat meals for 400-500 Jewish tourists per week during peak season, establishing a Chevra Kaddisha and Jewish cemetery, and working with the government to ensure that Jewish weddings are recognized as civil marriages in the UAE.
After Abu Dhabi, the ZRC delegation went to Dubai, where they met with Liron Zaslansky, Consul General of Israel in Dubai, before spending Shabbat at Minyan on the Palm, which was founded and led by Ross Kriel, the President of the Jewish Council of the Emirates. After the signing of the Abraham Accords, the JCE has been acting as a bridge between Emirati authorities and Jews living in the country. Mr. Kriel provided opportunities for all 12 ZRC rabbis, regardless of denomination or gender, to speak and/or participate in services at the Orthodox service and/or Shabbat meals. In their wildest dreams, the ZRC rabbis never could have imagined the seemingly impossible scenario of having a Shabbat dinner in a Muslim country with Emirati natives and about 65 Jewish people from around the world. One of the rabbis on the trip shared reflections, focusing on the recurring theme of “tolerance”. He also raised the interesting point about the limits of tolerance, indicating that we cannot be tolerant of evil.
Perhaps the most remarkable site-seeing experience in Dubai was the ZRC’s tour of the Crossroads of Civilization Museum , led by Ahmed Al Mansoori. As the founder of the museum, Ahmed focuses on “the promotion of multiculturalism, tolerance, and positive co-existence through better understanding of different peoples.” Ahmed was the first high-profile Muslm Arab to participate in an event of the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He believes in “pushing for closer relations with the State of Israel, and for different cultures to work together.” One of the galleries was an interfaith gallery that featured books and artifacts of all three major faith traditions. According to Ahmed, it is important to show non-Jews that Jews have lived in this part of the world for a very long time. This is part of his effort to counter the false narrative that used to be prevalent in the Middle East and that serves as a foundation for the antisemitic and anti-Zionist sentiment, “European governments felt guilty after the Holocaust & decided to give land to the refugees, but rather than giving the Jews a piece of Europe, they invaded the Middle East and gave the Jews land from that part of the world instead.” The most remarkable part of this museum was the Holocaust Gallery, which opened on April 8, 2021, Yom HaShoah. In stark contrast to Holocaust Deniers, Ahmed Al Mansoori and other Emiratis affirm that the Holocaust did happen and that it is a uniquely Jewish experience. What made this gallery remarkable was its very existence in a Muslim country. Ahmed himself participated in March of the Living and there are photos of him walking through the gates of Auschwitz, with his arms around an Israeli Jewish man wearing a kippah.
On Monday, June 26, the ZRC delegation spent the day in Bahrain. Bahrain is a much smaller country than the UAE; it is the poorest of the Gulf states, with no sources of oil. In Bahrain, the ZRC rabbis met with Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (BACA), at the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence Isa Cultural Centre. Sheikh Khalifa showed the delegation a video that included a range of participants in the center’s programs from different faith traditions, including not just Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but also Bahai, Buddhism. Hinduism, and more. At the center, ZRC rabbis also had the opportunity to meet Ibrahim Nonoo, a Bahraini Jew whose family (originally from Iraq) has been living in Bahrain since the 1800’s. He is the first cousin of Hudo Nanoo, who served as the Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2013. She was the first woman to be appointed to this prestigious post in the United States, as well as the first Jewish woman to be appointed as an ambassador on behalf of Bahrain. Bahrain is the only one of the six Gulf states with an indigenous Jewish community.
Later on in the day, the ZRC rabbis met with Ibrahim again at his synagogue, Bet Knesset Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments Synagogue) in the souk(shuk) section of Manama. The synagogue is essentially defunct; the Bahraini Jews are used to practicing their Judaism at home more than in the synagogue because they are too small to get a minyan. Some members of the ZRC delegation suggested that they conduct services (with their own minyan of rabbis), rather than just treat the synagogue as a museum.
Another highlight of the ZRC rabbis’ time in Bahrain was a visit with Nancy Khedouri, Member of the Shura Council at the hotel. Nancy is the only Jewish member of the National Assembly of Bahrain, one of forty members of the Upper House of the Parliament who is appointed by the King of Bahrain. The last speaker to meet with the ZRC before they headed to Israel was Eitan Naeh, the Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain. In Israel, the ZRC met with Khaled Al Jalahm, the Bahraini Ambassador to Israel.
All in all, the 12 ZRC rabbis were moved by their experiences in the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel. Inspired by this historic interdenominational rabbinic delegation to the Middle East, they hope to inspire others with their story upon their return to the United States.