The news this week that Israel has signed a normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, the first with an Arab country in 20 years, came as a relief to all who dream of peace in the region. Not only is it one that does not require giving up any land, but it is also inspiring other countries in the region to consider their own potential treaties.
The Executive Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University (NYU), the University Chaplain for NYU and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Administration there, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna was also appointed the chief rabbi of the United Arab Emirates last year. With NYU being a global network university, it pursued a plan to develop a presence in the Middle East. They started with a campus in Tel Aviv, and then created a 4-year college experience in Abu Dhabi. In 2009, Rabbi Sarna was invited to help with admissions. He agreed, so long as he didn’t have to hide the fact that he was a religious Jew. “It was a completely mind-blowing experience.”
The opportunity wasn’t without its doubts. “Of course I was scared. I said yes, and then the day before, I looked on a map and said ‘where is the United Arab Emirates, anyway? Oh my God, it’s right next to Saudi Arabia, and across the [sea] from Iran… I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. I was like, ‘what did I get myself into?'”
Sarna recalls, “One of the things I had to confront while I was there on my first trip was just how deep my stereotype was of how the Arab world was. My friend and colleague from NYU is the Imam, the Muslim religious leader at NYU New York, we went together. I wanted to go to the supermarket to pick up some food… I was in the middle of looking for cream cheese, and he left me and I was like ‘Oh my God I’m gonna die. Someone’s gonna come and stab me in the dairy section.’ The experience of fear was real, but then I realized just how irrational it was. In fact, I’m here to tell the story of how I survived…the dairy section. I did not get stabbed while looking for cream cheese with an OU on it.”
Sarna started going year after year to interview candidates, and saw many Jews living there and even more moving there. “People were coming there from all over the world, particularly from Western countries. Because they felt [safer]… It, of course, sounds more ironic if you’ve never visited, but it is a very safe country.” Jews from Belgium, the UK and France left their countries of origin as antisemitism increased. Some are even from South Africa or South America. While they have resident status and not citizen status, “the bargain that people are making is saying ‘I prefer to live in a country [where] I cannot get a vote [but have safety] and prosperity.'” This has changed the map of global Jewry that has held since the Holocaust. What was once seen as places where freedom was possible is now a place where “hate speech is protected by freedom of speech. In the UAE, hate speech against religion is actually a criminal offense.”
The events of 9/11 were part of the lead-up to this change. The King of the UAE recognized that they could separate moderate thinking from extremist thinking, creating a different kind of Arab national identity. “They have highlighted the part of Arab heritage which is all about hospitality. What does it mean to welcome in the stranger in the middle of the desert? They have taken that and applied it to the 21st century, with some of the largest airports in the world and some of the most amazing hotels in the world. This… is so deeply baked into the Emirati culture and they’ve charted a course which positions them at a crossroads between East and West, between Arab History and an integrated global future.”
In 2015, the community started a weekly minyan in homes. In 2017, they rented a villa for that purpose. This past year, another Chabad shul opened up along with a kosher caterer. “I think it’s going to grow. I’ve been seeing that whereas people used to come for a few years for work and then go, people are now coming, they are meeting partners, they are having children, they are setting down roots.” The community is in the process of building a mikvah as part of a major initiative that the government announced last year for a multifaith complex that will include a shul and beit midrash too.
Sarna now visits every other month and brings needed items, pastoring issues that affect the country and the community. While much of the job changes day-to-day, the goal is constant, to help the government and the community to build tolerance and increase awareness. “The ambassador to the UN invited me to speak at an event the UAE was hosting for 50+ ambassadors from Muslim countries.” The theme was on tolerance and combatting extremism. It was Yom HaShoah. “I talked about instances where Muslims saved Jew in the Holocaust. I came out of that room, almost pinching myself.” This is the tone of the new Israel deal as well. “This deal is not the product of a quick transition, this is a long-term-deep mindset DNA of tolerance. The fact that a Jewish community has been prospering there, separate from any negotiations, says it all.”
With the growth of the community exploding, Sarna thinks that within a few years, the Jewish population of the UAE could reach 10,000. “It will change the way Jews around the world see Arabs.” Sarna praises the Emirati people for their openness in bridging this gap together. “It’s about shared lineage… it’s the tent of Avraham.”