The Israeli dream for Middle East peace once included eating hummus in Beirut, visiting the ancient Jewish cemeteries in Yemen and seeing Iraq’s old synagogues. But with Thursday night’s landmark agreement on normalization with the United Arab Emirates, an unexpected opportunity has arisen to visit the newly open destination on the Arabian Peninsula — and by all accounts, many Israelis are excited to go.
Those seeking to get a strong sense of life in the Arab world might be disappointed: The vast majority of UAE residents are foreign workers, with only about 11% of the population being Arab Emirati citizens.
On the other hand, Israelis seeking skyscrapers, beachfront hotels and cosmopolitan crowds might well be pleased. It is believed that a small Jewish community once existed there — and Benjamin of Tudela traveled through the area in the mid-1100s — though evidence is inconclusive.
And while only traces of ancient Jewish presence remain, those looking for a little Judaica will find something in the small Gulf country.
1. More than one Jew so, of course, two synagogues
The United Arab Emirates’ modern Jewish community was only formally established in 2008, and it entirely comprises immigrants. Though small, numbering some 2,000-3,000 people, it is already participating in what could be called a thriving tradition of Jewish debate: Not one, but two organizations have claimed at one point to represent the UAE’s community.
Ross Kriel’s Jewish Council of the Emirates in Dubai hosts services at a synagogue known as “the villa,” a converted residence rented by the community, with a sanctuary, full kitchen, areas for socializing and playing, an outdoor pool, and several rooms upstairs where religiously observant visitors can stay over Shabbat.
The villa’s location has been and remains a closely held secret in an anonymous building — but as tensions relax and Jewish Israelis become a regular presence in the Emirates, it might come out into the open.
Worshipers in the synagogue pray, as do many Jews around the world, for the safety of the country and its rulers. In the UAE, Kriel’s community prays each week for God to preserve Sheikh Khalid bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
There’s also a Chabad-backed outfit led by longtime Gulf resident Rabbi Levi Duchman and businessman Solly Wolf. Their organization operates a Talmud Torah Jewish day school where 45 children learn about Judaism.
Duchman faced an official reprimand some months ago after launching a concerted public relations campaign introducing the new congregation but neglecting to acknowledge the existence of the city’s established but media-shy Jewish community.
2. Fragments of the past
The existence of an ancient Jewish community in the area upon which the United Arab Emirates now stands is poorly documented. Benjamin of Tudela, an early modern explorer, said he found a Jewish community in Kis in the modern-day emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, the northernmost of the emirates. Beyond his words, little trace of that community remains.
But records of Jewish communities in the area have not entirely vanished. In Ras al-Khaimah’s National Museum stands the tombstone of one David, son of Moses, unearthed in the 1970s by local residents.
The tombstone features clearly legible Hebrew writing, with some Judeo-Arabic mixed in. According to historian Timothy Power, the mysterious David may have migrated from Persia to nearby cosmopolitan Hormuz at the height of its commercial splendor, between the 14th and 16th centuries.
“A notable Jewish community existed on the island of Hormuz, situated at a strategic bottleneck at the head of the Arabian Gulf, less than a day’s sail from Ras Al Khaimah,” Power wrote, adding that one source attested several synagogues and two rabbis served the community at the time.
— Eli Dror (@edrormba) August 15, 2020
In an unprecedented and historic June 12 op-ed in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, UAE ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba offered Israelis a choice between normalization and annexation.
He also dropped a mention about a thriving new kosher catering business in the country. Israelis who keep kosher, or who are hankering for some Gulf-inflected Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, could stop by while visiting the country.
“Just last month, a new kosher caterer launched in Dubai to serve the growing Jewish community, the first new community in the Arab world in more than a century,” al-Otaiba wrote.
Elli Kriel, the wife of the JCE’s president Ross Kriel, recently opened that catering business — called “Elli’s Kosher Kitchen” — with UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi hailing it as a new chapter in “Gulf food history.”
Stuffed peppers, Yemistes, one of my favorite Greek recipes. What are you having for Shabbat dinner tonight?
“I take Emirati inspired recipes for a Jewish home and do what Jewish food does around the world, which is reflect the culture it’s in,” Kriel told UAE news site The National.
4. The Abrahamic Family House
At the end of 2019, the United Arab Emirates announced plans for an interfaith prayer complex for the so-called “Abrahamic faiths” — Muslims, Christians, and Jews. If peace still holds by 2022, Jews, including Jewish Israelis, will be able to attend.
The complex will be built on Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest and most powerful emirate. One of the buildings will be yet another UAE synagogue, alongside a church, a mosque and other exhibits promoting interfaith understanding.
Though it receives quiet support from the Emirati authorities, the Jewish community has until now largely kept a low profile. The new state-sanctioned synagogue would mark a significant step forward for public worship of Judaism in the Gulf state.