Israeli minister joins UAE Jewish community for pre-Shabbat Zoom ceremony

Israel has ‘been waiting for this historic moment for many years,’ says Omer Yankelevich; Jewish group’s president says he hopes to soon host minister, other Israelis in-person

Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich attends a Knesset committee meeting on August 5, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich attends a Knesset committee meeting on August 5, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich participated in a pre-Shabbat virtual gathering organized by the UAE’s Jewish community on Friday as the countries continue to draw closer at a more public level since the announcement of a normalization deal just over a week ago.

“It is so exciting to begin this new chapter for both our countries,” Yankelevich said during the ceremony, according to a joint statement issued by the Jewish Council of the Emirates and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

“We, in the State of Israel, have been waiting for this historic moment for many years. Now, we have the opportunity to build a strong bridge between us. We are part of one united nation. With a common history, a common heritage and most importantly, a common destiny,” the minister added.

Yankelevich was joined by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the non-resident chief rabbi of the UAE and JCE President Ross Kriel.

Families from the UAE’s Jewish community and members of Israeli youth movements also logged onto the event.

Kriel said he looked forward to hosting the Diaspora affairs minister as well as many other Israelis in the UAE.

“This is not a day we expected, but it is a day we will never forget,” said Sarna.

Sarna claimed it was the first time a member of the Israeli parliament had addressed the Jewish community in the UAE, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with leaders of the community on Thursday.

“This peace is good for the State Israel, good for our people and good for all peoples of the region,” he told them during a video call. “I hope to visit you this year, soon. If we can overcome the coronavirus pandemic I’ll be able to shake your hands too.”

Separately on Friday, the UAE Foreign Ministry Strategic Communications Director Hend al-Otaiba wished followers on Twitter a “Shabbat Shalom” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, calling it an “historic week of peace.”

In his second op-ed for an Israeli newspaper, the United Arab Emirates’s ambassador to the US said Friday the new normalization agreement with Israel would allow for “direct” advocacy for the Palestinian cause, including the establishment of a sovereign state, now with “stronger” tools.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced their agreement last week. The two countries “agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE,” they said in a joint statement with the United States that was released by US President Donald Trump.

The UAE-Israel deal marks the third such agreement the Jewish state has struck with an Arab country after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994).

Israeli and UAE delegations have begun meeting to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security and the establishment of reciprocal embassies, their statement said. In exchange for the accord, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexation of parts of the West Bank.

The UAE’s small Jewish community has welcomed the agreement, praising the Arab Gulf state for its pluralism and religious tolerance.

“Among other things, this will allow Israelis to visit the UAE and share our daily experience of… tolerance and pluralism that typifies the UAE,” the Jewish Council of the Emirates, an umbrella group established by Jews living in the country, said in a statement.

In recent years, the UAE has made great efforts to portray itself as a tolerant country welcoming all religions, including Judaism.

President Khalifa bin-Zayed al-Nahyan declared 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance” in the UAE. In this context, the country announced the building of a massive interfaith compound in Abu Dhabi that will also include a synagogue. The so-called Abrahamic Family House is slated to open in 2022.

A Jewish community has been operating in Dubai for a decade, initially with tacit support but more recently with overt backing from the local authorities, and is currently in the process of officially becoming a licensed religious community.

Estimates of how many Jews currently live in the UAE range from the low hundreds to 1,500. There are three different congregations — two Orthodox and one egalitarian — and one kosher catering business in the country, called “Elli’s Kosher Kitchen,” which has also garnered a lot of attention, including UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi hailing it as a new chapter in “Gulf food history.”

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