In Zoom meeting with local Jews, UAE minister hails ‘wisdom of Shabbat’

Minister of State Shamma Al Mazrui notes similarities between Islam and Judaism, calls herself a ‘new student of the Jewish tradition and wisdom, your values, your ethics’

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

Adressing the local Jewish community, a senior United Arab Emirates official on Friday hailed the “wisdom of Shabbat” and said she recognized many similarities between Judaism and Islam.

In her 10-minute speech, sprinkled with Hebrew words, to the community’s weekly virtual pre-Shabbat meeting, UAE Minister of State for Youth Affairs Shamma Al Mazrui praised various concepts of the Jewish religion, such as the virtue of repentance and introspection during the High Holy Days. She also referred to the recent normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, expressing hope that it would usher in a new era of “radical tolerance and radical love in our region and the world.”

Al Mazrui, 27, started her speech by noting that she first learned about Shabbat — or Shabbos, as she called it, using Ashkenazi pronunciation — during her time as a student in New York. She recalled seeing her friends practice their rituals “as pathways to peace, completeness and wholeness.”

Her Jewish friends made resting on the seventh day “seem as logical as it is spiritual, and it modeled the basic human quest for peace and how we are more alike than different,” she added. “It reminded me personally of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who said faith wears out in the heart just as our clothes wear out, so ask Allah to renew faith in our hearts.”

In this Feb. 14, 2016, image released by the Emirates News Agency, WAM, from left to right, Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimi, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, Ohood Al Roumi appointed as Minister of State for Happiness, Shamma Al Mazrui appointed as Minister of State for Youth and Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of State for FNC Affairs, take part at swearing-in ceremony for ministers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (WAM via AP)

Al Mazrui was born in Abu Dhabi and studied economics at the city’s branch of New York University. She also spent one semester on NYU’s main campus in southern Manhattan and later obtained a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Oxford. In February 2016 — then aged 22 — Al Mazrui became the youngest government minister in the world.

On Tuesday, in a blog post for The Times of Israel, Al Mazrui called for “radical tolerance and radical love,” which she said could stem from her country’s accord with the Jewish state.

“We need one another because we can’t simply think our way to peace; we must practice peace as an active practice and trust in its receiving. And we all have an opportunity now to be steady while the world is spinning around us,” she said on Friday’s Zoom call with members of the UAE’s Jewish community, which is based mostly in Dubai.

“While I’m young and restless myself, I’m coming to see that stillness and peace is the key to, well, just about everything in our lives: to be a better parent, to be a better artist, to be a better spouse, to be a better investor, to be a better athlete, to be a better scientist, to be a better neighbor, to be a better even human being and to unlock all that we’re capable of in this life. And this, I see, is the wisdom of Shabbos. This is the power of the pause, which makes really the invisible visible.”

Our youth want to learn from you. Our nation wants to learn from different nations. And likewise, we invite you to come sit with us at the table

The young minister of state said she saw in her Jewish friends’ observance of Shabbat a “powerful similarity to Islam” as it served as “constant reminder for them to go back to God… for peace, for provision, for a lot of thanksgiving.”

Al Mazrui asked the community to consider her “a new student of the Jewish tradition and wisdom, your values, your ethics that guide you through a full year of weekly Torah portions. I want to learn from you today,” she added.

“Our youth want to learn from you. Our nation wants to learn from different nations. And likewise, we invite you to come sit with us at the table.”

The Jewish community of the UAE is teaching her and everyone else in the country a “new way for Allah to renew our faith and peace in our hearts,” she said.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Al Mazrui noted that she was addressing the community on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and shortly after the September 15 accord signed by Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem. “And the significance of this alignment must propel us forward to take new steps. To first look inward and begin again,” she said.

“I was blown away in learning about teshuva,” she went on, using the Hebrew term for repentance. “And now with the head of the year, we have a perfect call to shake out old fixed ways, to review who we want to be as individuals and as nations. A time of truth-telling, a time to do the work within ourselves, a time to shake it up.”

The minister expressed her commitment to building bridges between Muslims and Jews, and between Israelis and Emiratis. “My dream is that peaceful coexistence will become a conversation across faith denominations, disciplines and generations,” she said.

Al Mazrui said she believes that accords between Israel and other Arab countries will follow. “I have hope that the movement stirred by the Abrahamic Accord will not only be the beginning of radical tolerance and radical love in our region and the world, that will change it,” she said.

“May our common humanity unite us and may our common faith in a brighter future heal this wounded world.”

Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the United Arab Emirates, blows the shofar in Dubai, September 18, 2020 (video screenshot)

Her speech garnered immediate praise from community leaders. “Your excellency, I think I speak for everybody here — I feel moved to my core,” said New York-based Yehuda Sarna, the chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, the congregation that arranged the virtual meeting.

The community’s president, Ross Kriel, told The Times of Israel that the Zoom session with Al Mazrui “was unique because she spoke with such clarity and emotion about her connection to the Jewish community. We share the goal of creating a context in the UAE where our young children become ambassadors of its message of tolerance and pluralism.”

Estimates of how many Jews currently live in the UAE range from the low hundreds to 1,500. The community, mostly made up of businesspeople 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.

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