'This moment will forever redefine life in the Middle East'

At White House ceremony, UAE Jews hail treaties as ‘epoch-making’

Representatives of country’s two rival Dubai congregations fete ‘great momentum for peace in the world’; head of Bahrain’s Jewish community hosted by senior adviser to King Hamad

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

From left to right: Jewish leaders Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Eric Fingerhut and Ross Kriel, at the White House peace ceremony, September 15, 2020 (courtesy)
From left to right: Jewish leaders Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Eric Fingerhut and Ross Kriel, at the White House peace ceremony, September 15, 2020 (courtesy)

The head of the Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates hailed the signing of a treaty between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi as an event that will transform life in the region Tuesday.

Ross Kriel, president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, was one of several community representatives who flew to Washington to witness the historic signing of agreements establishing ties between Israel and the UAE, as well as Bahrain.

“We’ve been praying for this day for years, and today, those prayers have been answered. This moment will forever redefine life in the Middle East,” said Kriel. “It is an epoch-making event that heralds a time of peace.”

Tuesday’s signing of the peace treaties, as well as a separate agreement known as the Abraham Accords, “can have a transformative effect for Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperation across the Middle East,” Kriel added.

The contents of the agreements signed Tuesday have not yet been released.

The fact that Bahrain followed the UAE’s lead and last week announced that it, too, would normalize ties with Israel “gives us even greater hope for the future of a peaceful, welcoming, and inspired Middle East –– one in which this type of interfaith harmony is not the exception, but the norm,” Kriel said.

The UAE has “demonstrated in word and deed a deep commitment to protecting sacred spaces, to encouraging religious practice by all people and fostering religious diversity. From our beginnings in the UAE, over 10 years ago, we have been a beneficiary of this commitment,” Kriel added.

A member of the Dubai Synagogue holds a Torah scroll donated by New York businessman Eli Epstein, with an inscribed dedication to his friend, Dubai business leader Mohamed Alabbar, November 2018 (Photo: Israel Calera)

Kriel represented his Dubai congregation at the signing ceremony, held at the White House lawn, together with its chief rabbi, New York-based Yehuda Sarna.

Estimates of how many Jews currently live in the UAE range from the low hundreds to 1,500. The community, mostly made up of business people originally from Israel or the US now living in the economic hub of Dubai, thrived for years under the radar, and has recently stepped out of the shadows.

“What distinguishes Abraham –– in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran –– is not that he was the first to make a covenant with God, but that he was the first to establish peace agreements with others,” Sarna said. “Bearing his name, the Abraham Accords honor that legacy of peace by opening a new chapter of coexistence.”

Representatives of another Jewish community in Dubai — which broke off from Kriel’s congregation several months ago, attended the ceremony as well.

“A great historic moment and great momentum for peace in the world,” said Solly Wolf, the president of Dubai’s Jewish Community Center. He represented the congregations together with its spiritual leader, Rabbi Levi Duchman, who is currently the only rabbi permanently based in the UAE.

Rabbi Levi Duchman, left, and Solly Wolf, right, with a prominent Chabad-Lubavitch representative at the White House peace ceremony, September 15, 2020 (courtesy)

On Monday, Wolf and Duchman visited the grave of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to “pray and ask [him] for a blessing for our great brave community in Dubai and the the Jewish people in Israel and [the] entire world.”

In contrast, the head of Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo, did not travel to Washington for the ceremony. He was, however, hosted for a meeting by the diplomatic adviser of Bahrain’s King Hamad, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

Al-Khalifa, the Gulf monarchy’s former foreign minister, praised Nonoo’s “remarkable patriotic stances” and his support for the policies of King Hamad, according to a readout of the meeting by the Bahrain News Agency.

Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, on June 26, 2019. (Courtesy)

Al Khalifa further expressed “pride in the Jewish community’s contributions in various fields, which characterizes Bahraini society as a civilized model for coexistence and openness,” according to the readout.

Nonoo expressed his appreciation for Al Khalifa’s “keenness to communicate with all sects of the society, in a way that contributes to strengthen the development and prosperity of the Kingdom.”

After Manama announced last Friday that it was establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, Nonoo spoke of a “historic moment that we have never expected to see in our lifetime.”

Bahrain is home to the Gulf’s only indigenous Jewish community, but today only about 50 remain in the country.

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