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NY-based rabbi seeks to bring US Jews to visit the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia

‘The grand prize for Jewish tourism is not Israel but the American Jewish community,’ says Marc Schneier, who will launch new initiative alongside Bahraini tourism minister

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

People enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages at a restaurant overlooking the Marina district in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 23, 2019 (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
People enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages at a restaurant overlooking the Marina district in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 23, 2019 (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

An American rabbi with extensive ties to the Arab world is set to launch an effort to attract Jewish travelers to the Gulf, including to nations that have not yet established formal ties with Israel and have hitherto been closed off to Jewish tourists.

New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier is set to formally announce the creation of the “American Jewish travel to the Gulf initiative” on Tuesday afternoon in Manama at a reception hosted by Bahrain’s Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani.

The initiative includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Schneier said this week in an interview.

“The grand prize for Jewish tourism is not Israel but the American Jewish community,” said Schneier, the rabbi of a congregation in the Hamptons that a few years ago became the first synagogue group to visit Bahrain.

“At the time, His Majesty King Hamad challenged me to undertake an effort to bring US tourists to Bahrain. I told him that I’d be happy to do that but added that it has to come with a Jewish infrastructure,” he recalled.

While the coronavirus pandemic has made the matter more difficult than expected, Schneier teamed up with Daat travel, a leading Jewish travel organization, to bring more congregations from North America to the Gulf.

Rabbi Marc Schneier (left) with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (courtesy The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)

Schneier has long been involved in Jewish-Muslim interfaith work and has had extensive ties with several senior officials across the region. In 2018 he was named a “special adviser” to the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, an unpaid position in which he assisted the Manama-based King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence.

One of his books about Jewish-Muslim relations, “Sons of Abraham,” is currently in the process of being translated into Arabic, he said.

The book, which he co-wrote in 2013 with Imam Shamsi Ali, of New York, will serve as a reference for the UAE officials who are working to create a curriculum for high school and university-level students, he said.

“There is a new engagement between Muslims and Jews in the wake of the Abraham Accords, and many people, particularly here in the Gulf, are very curious about Jews but don’t know anything about our tradition and values,” he said.

Schneier recalled seeing a Jewish prayer service on a recent Emirates flight from New York to Dubai, with worshipers donning prayer shawls and phylacteries and swaying back and forth.

“Most [non-Jewish] people on the flight must have been interested, intrigued, or even annoyed, at this sight. ‘What is this prayer service all about?’ There is tremendous curiosity about Jewish practices.”

He and the imam wrote the book, which elaborates on similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam, anticipating a reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world.

“You see it on a leadership level, but it’s also important to provide the masses with a guide to better understanding the other,” Schneier said. “People in this region are so fascinated about Jews.”

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