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InterviewNY congregation returns from trip to Bahrain

A rabbi in King Hamad’s court preaches Torah of interfaith tolerance

Head of Foundation for Ethnic Understanding Rabbi Marc Schneier ‘engages’ with Gulf states’ royal families in hopes of shoring up peace in the Middle East

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Marc Schneier at The Times of Israel Jerusalem offices, February 28, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Marc Schneier at The Times of Israel Jerusalem offices, February 28, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

At first glance, Marc Schneier looks like anything but your typical rabbi. With his gelled-back hair and smattering of jewelry, the black yarmulke clipped to the back of his head looks almost like an afterthought. But — even though he’s left the pulpit to advocate for increased Muslim-Jewish relations — he sure speaks like one.

“I believe as the children of Abraham, not only do we share a common faith but we share a common fate, and now it’s our single destiny that will strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other,” said Schneier during a recent visit to the Jerusalem offices of The Times of Israel.

Notwithstanding his slick appearance and Kumbaya rhetoric, Schneier is in fact a Yeshiva University-trained, 18th-generation Orthodox rabbi. In 1990, he founded the well-heeled Hampton Synagogue, where he was a beloved, if sometimes controversial, leader until his 2016 shift into a different position there as “senior rabbi” on the heels of increased scrutiny into his series of marital relationships as his fifth out of six marriages dissolved.

It comes as little surprise, however, that the son of interfaith tolerance crusader Rabbi Arthur Schneier is arguably even better known for his work outside a synagogue sanctuary’s walls.

Some three decades ago, Schneier, 59, co-founded The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in 1989 alongside theater producer Joseph Papp, a pioneer in color-blind casting. For his work in mending fences between the black and Jewish communities, Schneier quipped he was labeled by some in the Jewish community “a white Al Sharpton.”

About 12 years ago, he turned his attention to developing greater Jewish-Muslim cooperation. For his efforts, he said he is sometimes called a “pollyanna.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, right, and Imam Shamsi Ali (AP Richard Drew, via JTA)

In the past decade, Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has launched a Weekend of Twinnings of Mosques and Synagogues, a program in which Jewish and Muslim congregations from the same community “engage” — a favorite word of the rabbi. Schneier also co-authored a 2013 book with Imam Shamsi Ali titled “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims” that was published by Beacon Press/Random House.

Since 2009, the 30-year veteran of the struggle for civil rights and interfaith cooperation has preached in an unlikely arena: Muslim Gulf states’ royal courts. As a self-appointed emissary of the Jewish people, Schneier says he serves there as an outspoken champion of Jewish-Muslim relations — and Israel.

Schneier stopped by The Times of Israel for a wide-ranging discussion a few days after having led a grassroots trip of members of his Hampton congregation on a historic visit to Bahrain.

Rabbi Marc Schneier at The Times of Israel Jerusalem offices, February 28, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

What was the first Gulf country that you visited, and when?

Qatar. 2009. In Doha.

As somebody who is Yeshiva University-trained, I would assume you’re also a Zionist?

Of course. I’m passionate about Israel. You know, I’m all for dialogue, but cross a line with me on Israel, I’m like a rabid dog.

But yet you appear at different events with people who are very anti-Zionist, who are vocally anti-Zionist such as Linda Sarsour —

No, no — she appeared at my event.

You are onstage with people who are very anti-Zionist. How do you reconcile that?

Well, first, I’m a great believer in engagement. I’m a great believer in dialogue. You know I always give people the opportunity to learn to be exposed to my passion for Israel.

I just had the experience two weeks ago in Doha, in addition to speaking at the interfaith conference. So Sheikha Hind, that’s the sister of Sheikh Tamim, the emir, the daughter of Sheikha Moza, who began the Qatar Foundation —  wanted this rabbi to deliver a lecture to the university students. First time ever in Doha.

Rabbi Marc Schneier with Bahrain Minister of Tourism H.E. Zayed Alzayani discussing a new frontier of American Jewish tourism to Bahrain, February 2018. (courtesy)

And one of the questions in the exchange afterwards was “Rabbi, listen you know I’ve nothing against Jews, but Zionists.” And I explained to him in a very stern way — very respectfully, but in a very stern way — that Israel is not some 70-year-old political aspiration for the Jewish people. It’s at the very core of Judaism. It’s at the very core of Judaism for 3,300 years. Your asking me to disengage from Israel is like my telling you to no longer observe the laws of halal.

I am not shy when it comes to not only expressing my feelings and my point of view, but also when it comes to defending the State of Israel. I think I’m in a very, very unique position. There are very few Jewish leaders that are in this position.

No one is ever going to question my credentials and my credibility when it comes to Israel.

I’m just choosing Linda Sarsour as an example. We had this major rally in Times Square and we had, it was called “Today I am a Muslim, Too.” It was our second Times Square rally. She was on the program. She didn’t say anything disrespectful that day knowing that I was there, but I have some real issues with her pronouncements and her, some of the rhetoric and some of the diatribe and she knows how I feel.

Have there been any countries that have brushed you off, that have said, “No, don’t come visit,” in the course of your decade-plus of work?

No, actually not. I have not made an attempt to go to Oman. You know, Oman, of the six, they’re a little “out there.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev (courtesy)

It sounds like in many occasions you’ve been “The Jew.” The representative Jew.

That’s something you can say. If I say it, then I’m accused of being an egomaniac, but that’s something you can say.

How do you handle everything you do being scrutinized?

Because I’m very true to myself. I’m true to myself, I’m true to my community, I’m true to Israel. And everyone knows that. And that to me is very, very important.

The food…

I go vegan for a few days. It’s good for my diet. I don’t have my Soul Cycle, I don’t have my spinning classes in Bahrain or in Doha, so you do what you have to do.

But seriously, I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, I’m proud to be that representative, and I am a great champion, a great defender of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Bahrain Jewish Community Leaders with Rabbi Marc Schneier. (R- L) Current member of Bahraini parliament Nancy Khedouri, former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States Huda Nonoo, Rabbi Marc Schneier and community leader Michael Yadgar, February 2018. (courtesy)

When pressed to defend your beliefs, and the beliefs of Zionism, you speak up. But have you ever been accused of being a “beard”?

Never never never never. You can’t, because my credentials are there.

So Jews do not criticize you for going to meet with the Gulf royalty?

Never. Never. I might be criticized for being Pollyannish. When I entered the fray, in black-Jewish relations right before Crown Heights. Yeah, I was called out by people in my own community: I was called the white Al Sharpton, this and that, and people thought I was crazy. And look at where we are today.

I’m following the same trajectory. I know in my heart of hearts what is the ultimate goal. I know that it took the Israelites 40 years to get the Promised Land. I’m not suggesting that we have arrived at the promised land of Muslim-Jewish relations, but the good news is that the journey has begun.

It’s about Muslim leaders speaking out against anti-Semitism. It’s about Jewish leaders speaking out against Islamophobia. It’s about Jewish leaders speaking out against anti-Semitism, bigotry.

How’s that going in Trump’s America?

I said this personally, I said this in Qatar and I want to thank Donald Trump for helping to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations. He deserves a lot of credit because very much to the tradition of the American Jewish community – and we’ve spoken to the civil rights struggle – the community that is standing by in solidarity, standing up for the American Muslim community, is the American Jewish community. And I’m very, very, very proud. Today, Muslim-Jewish relations is very chic. It’s very much in vogue. You see more and more organizations getting involved and how it’s just magnificent.

From left, Rabbi Marc Schneier and Russell Simmons of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding; NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Consul General Sam Grundwerg, and Muslim community activist Mahomed Akbar Khan marking the holy month of Ramadan at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, June 15, 2017. (Michelle Mivzari via JTA)

In response to Trump?

It isn’t a response to Trump, but it has really grown, where you just see this coming together of Muslims and Jews. I think there is a clear understanding back in the US that the more that Muslims and Jews engage with one another how not only does the relationship grow, and not only is it productive for both communities, but also it’s just for the betterment of human kind.

We went to Bahrain — first synagogue mission ever to an Arab state in the Gulf, as the guests of King Hamad [bin Isa Al Khalifa]… The more Jews that come to Bahrain or Qatar or wherever, the more we engage.

What is “engage”?

Just in terms of speaking with one another, celebrating each other.

But the examples you’re giving are the king, Sheikha Moza and her daughter…

No, I’m talking about the people, the amcha [common man]. That’s what I spoke about with Bahrain, about Jewish tourists. Today, let’s take your synagogue that’s “thinking out of the box.” Before you come to Israel, you want an experience in the Arab world.

So now you go to Morocco, you even go to Egypt… We would like to make Bahrain to be one of those destinations. You’ll now see members of the Jewish – we didn’t say leaders of the Jewish community – members of the Jewish community as tourists coming to Bahrain as a destination to engage with the local Bahrainian community, with the local Jewish community.

Rabbi Marc Schneier and Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (courtesy)

That’s only open to Jews who are not Israelis, also; who have a foreign passport.

For now. Listen, I will tell you on the record. If I was a betting man – well I’ll say two things. There’s six horses in the race. That’s six Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and UAE. I would bet on the Bahrainian horse to be the first one to cross the line in terms of diplomatic relations with Israel. And I think it’s going to happen within two years.

I believe that Bahrain will be the first one. And I’ll tell you why: because I’ve worked very, very closely with the king since 2011. You know I was the first rabbi ever to be invited to the palace. And at that meeting he was the first Gulf leader to go after Iran publicly — which he did through me — and to publicly condemn Iran as a harborer [of terrorism]. He was the first. We’re talking about the Gulf where everyone focuses on the Saudis, and you have the king of the smallest of the six, who is very progressive, and very, very courageous.

I’ll give you an example: I’m in Bahrain in March 2013. Three days later, Bahrain becomes the first parliament to legislate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. [That’s a] big deal.

We’re on the cusp of seeing a piece of very formalized peace between Israel and the Gulf

2016, March: It was the king who galvanized the other five Gulf states where the GCC then labeled Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. This is the same king who said BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel] is wrong for the Muslim community. This is the same king who said to me in 2014 that our only hope for a strong, moderate voice in the Arab Gulf, or in the Arabian Gulf, is a strong Israel.

If you recall, the Palestinians have put forth a resolution to remove Israel from FIFA. And it was the joint effort of Qatar and Bahrain that protected Israel and defended Israel, and that resolution was voted down. And I remember the king saying to me after I left Bahrain, he said “Rabbi, I told you it would never happen on my watch.”

I know this man’s heart. I know his commitment.

I do firmly believe that in order to realize Donald Trump’s ultimate dream of regional peace, particularly between Israel and the Gulf, that we have to first resolve the conflict within the Gulf – the internal conflict. And that is the blockade between the Saudis – it’s not just the Saudis and the Emirates and Bahrain blockading Qatar. But Qatar is also supported by Kuwait and Oman. Really it’s three versus three.

I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing a piece of very formalized peace between Israel and the Gulf with all six, but first we have to resolve internal conflict of three versus three. I know the power of a united GCC – I witnessed that power when it came to Hezbollah.

When you’re speaking with the leaders of the Gulf nations, what are the sticking points about Israel that come up and are controversial there? Is it settlements?

It’s changed. It’s not the way it used to be. There’s such a focus on Iran today, the sentiment that I hear is, “Why don’t we have relations [with Israel]? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Do you know what it is for the emir of Qatar to say to me, “Rabbi, the three small nations that fight above their weight are: Qatar, Israel, and Singapore.” Or for the prince of Qatar to say to me, “We’re the Israel of the Gulf.” It’s a different language today.

The Hampton Synagogue Congregational Mission met with leaders of the Bahrain Jewish Community including former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States Huda Nonoo and current member of Bahraini parliament Nancy Khedouri and community leader Michael Yadgar, February 2018 (courtesy)

As opposed to Israel being the Israel of the Middle East? I don’t understand.

No, I’m saying a different language where it’s just, “How can we move in the direction of seeing a formalized agreement with Israel, why don’t we have it?”

I met with the economic minister in Bahrain, who said, “Look at Israel in terms of high-tech.” His dream in terms of Bahrain 2030 is to develop a whole high-tech hub there. And they look at Israel as being the paradigm, the model.

You hear comments about how it’s really business and the economy that will be the foundation for having these diplomatic relations. It’s a different language. Ten years ago it was about Palestinians and Palestine. You just don’t hear the same language.

Another conversation I’ve been having with some of these leaders in the Gulf is reminding them that in the US, if you insult the “pro-Israel community,” you’re no longer just speaking about the Jewish community. The Jewish community basically doesn’t even matter when it comes to the pro-Israel community. It’s clear that Donald Trump’s recent declaration on Jerusalem had more to do with the Evangelical community than it had to do with the American Jewish community, which is something else that they’re beginning to realize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office, March 5, 2018 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

There’s a new era of leadership in the Gulf, but it’s the same leadership here in Israel, practically the same government, same person, and he has his own baggage. What kind of relationship do you have with the Israeli government?

You’re preaching to the choir. I’ve said this many, many times. I think that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu should take a page out of [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat’s playbook and announce that he’s going to Riyadh, or wherever, in the Gulf. You know, Sadat never received an invitation from [Israeli prime minister Menachem] Begin, he just took this bold initiative.

I don’t even think it would be such a bold initiative right now. But he’s just preoccupied with all his problems and all the nonsense.

Do you speak with Netanyahu at all, or with his ministers?

I have spoken with him or with [Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser] Jonathan Schechter, who really handles this in his office. I’m not about meetings for the sake of meetings. He’s very aware of my travels, of my journeys, of my conversations.

They’re aware. They’re not helping or facilitating…

You’re right. I can’t force the prime minister – I can only say publicly what I think he should be doing.

Are you given messages as the representative Jew from the Gulf leaders to give to Israel?

All the time.

And you deliver them?

Yes, but they’re not secret messages. I’ll never forget when the king of Bahrain says to me, “Our only hope for a strong Arab moderate voice in the Gulf is a strong Israel.” I said, “You want me to deliver the message?” He said, “No, I want you to go public. That’s how I feel.”

I don’t think it’s a question of hidden messages right now. You could read the tealeaves today. I believe this with all my heart, we’re on the cusp. And I’ve communicated all of this –

And how are you received when you communicate this?

“Thank you.” I mean, what am I supposed to do? But listen, I think it’s only a matter of time that you’ll have a new leadership here in this country, and I would say this to the prime minister, and I would say this to the future leadership of this country, that the Gulf awaits. And there’s a historic opportunity right now, and we should take advantage of it.

Yaakov Schwartz contributed to this report. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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