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In first, Saudi king hosts Israeli rabbi at royal palace

Jerusalem-based David Rosen, invited to Riyadh as part of interfaith meeting, hails ‘revolutionary moment’; says Palestinian issue still ‘glass ceiling’ for Israel-Saudi relations

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Rabbi David Rosen, second from left, meeting with Saudi King Salman at the royal palace in Riyadh, February 2020 (courtesy KAICIID)
Rabbi David Rosen, second from left, meeting with Saudi King Salman at the royal palace in Riyadh, February 2020 (courtesy KAICIID)

For apparently the first time in modern history, a rabbi met with the king of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last week.

King Salman hosted Jerusalem-based rabbi David Rosen in his royal palace in the Saudi capital, in a move indicative of the monarchy’s desire to further open itself up to the Western world.

Rosen was born in England but moved to Israel years ago and is a member of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue. He spent two and a half days in the Saudi capital to attend a meeting of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, where he is a member of the board of directors.

The Vienna-based center, known as KAICIID, was established eight years ago by the previous Saudi king, Abdullah, but no Saudi monarch has ever invited its board to the royal palace in Riyadh.

“It was amazing. The experience was really something special,” Rosen told The Times of Israel this week. “And it was not just the meeting with the king. The most exciting thing was meeting young people and their sense of the transformation their country is undergoing.”

Last week’s meeting was in fact the first-ever interfaith group hosted by King Salman, Rosen said.

Just two years ago, the Saudi authorities “would not have contemplated inviting us, and primarily me as a rabbi. This would have been too much for then,” Rosen said. In this sense, the reception at the royal palace was a “revolutionary moment,” he added.

Rosen, who serves as the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, was one of nine KAICIID board members who attended the meeting with King Salman, and the only one representing Judaism. The other eight represented Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques welcomed the board members, who were holding their first meeting in Riyadh, and stressed the importance of KAICIID’s role in consolidating the principles of dialogue and coexistence among different religions and cultures, promoting the values of moderation and tolerance, and combating all forms of extremism and terrorism,” the organization said in a press release.

No kosher catering was provided for Rosen, who is a vegan, so he survived on pita, hummus, olives and dates, he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many dates in my life,” he joked.

While his meeting with the king would likely not have been possible without the covert rapprochement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel, the possibility of establishing bilateral ties was not discussed, Rosen said.

“On the contrary: from the Saudi point of view, there was a desire to present me as a religious representative, a representative of the Jewish world and of the Jewish religion, and not as a representative of any specific political current,” he said. “I was presented to the king as representative of Jewish people and of Judaism, not in any particular national identity.”

Rosen, who also served as communal rabbi in South Africa and as chief rabbi of Ireland, said that he got the impression that for the Israel-Saudi relationship to grow more formal, tangible progress needs to be made in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

“In all my conversations, there was the emphasis that there is still a glass ceiling. In other words: things can warm — and people want things to warm — but the symbolism of the Palestinian issue is still so significant that if there is no movement on that track, there always is going to be a limit to how much warming there can be,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment for this article. But its Arabic-language Twitter account tweeted a photo of the meeting.

Joel C. Rosenberg, a Jerusalem-based Israeli Christian interfaith activist who traveled to Saudi Arabia in September, welcomed Rosen’s invitation to Riyadh.

“I think it’s enormously significant that the Saudis are continuing to pursue interfaith delegations and dialogue,” he said. “The meeting between the rabbi and the king is of particular significance, because as far as I know it’s the first time the king has met with one of these interfaith delegations.”

In September, Rosenberg, a dual US-Israeli citizen, led a delegation of American Evangelicals on a three-day tour to Jeddah, the second group of high-profile church figures he has brought to the conservative kingdom in recent years. The delegation was received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but not by the king.

Joel C. Rosenberg, left, is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2019 (courtesy Saudi Embassy in Washington)

“This is significant progress, and I am encouraged,” he said about Rosen’s audience with the monarch. “There is a long way to go, these are very significant movements, and I hope that the Saudis will continue to build on them. But I believe they will.”

Another US interfaith activist with extensive ties to the Gulf, Rabbi Marc Schneier, earlier this month spent a few days in Saudi Arabia as well, where he met with the country’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah.

While he has met with the king of Bahrain, whom he advises on interfaith affairs, he has never been received in the royal palace in Riyadh.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, left, is hosted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Fisal Bin Farhan, February 2020 (courtesy)

The kingdom would “very much like to actively pursue any kind of regional peace,” including establishing increasingly open relations with Israel, the rabbi said. However, during his recent trip he was told that “they don’t want to address this until after the Israeli elections” on March 2.

Earlier this month, a large delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited Saudi Arabia in what is believed to be the first trip of a US-Jewish group to the kingdom since the early 1990s.

The Conference of Presidents said the “very productive” visit was a “big step forward” in terms of Jerusalem-Riyadh relations. It declined to say who received the delegation.

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