UAE Jewish community celebrates peace with Israel, excited about direct flights

‘This will allow Israelis to visit the UAE and share our daily experience of tolerance and pluralism,’ cheers community leader Ross Kriel

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

President of UAE's Jewish community Ross Kriel (courtesy)
President of UAE's Jewish community Ross Kriel (courtesy)

The small Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates on Thursday welcomed the historic agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi to formalize relations, 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 (JCE), an umbrella group established by Jews living in the country, said in a statement.

“I am so moved by the many messages of hope that I have received from Emirati friends of our community on hearing this news,” said JCE president Ross Kriel.

“The announcement reflects the extent to which the UAE has demonstrated sustained courage and pragmatism in seeking opportunities for peace and economic development in the region. Our community members look forward to direct flights to Israel and welcoming Israeli friends and visitors to the UAE.”

A man sporting a Jewish ‘tallit’ looks out over the Dubai skyline in the United Arab Emirates (video screenshot)

According to a joint statement released earlier on Thursday by US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the UAE’s de-facto leader Prince Mohammed bin-Zayed al-Nahyan, delegations from Abu Dhabi will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements on “investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.”

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the non-resident chief rabbi of the JCE, praised Prince Mohammed bin-Zayed for his “vision of tolerance, synergy and the fusion of past and future.”

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich said Thursday night she’d already spoken with another top community leader, Solly Wolf.

“We were both very excited and moved by this great opportunity and agreed to establish a mutually fruitful relationship between the Jewish community and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs,” she said.

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.

“The pope’s [historic 2019] visit, the construction of the Abrahamic Family House and the Year of Tolerance all point in the same direction: The future,” said Sarna, who is based in New York. “What excites me most is the potential of collaboration around education and culture.”

Dubai-based Rabbi Levi Duchman said Thursday’s announcement was “a historic one for all people in the Middle East and for humanity at large.”

“The peaceful cooperation of nations in service of benefiting society — working together towards a vaccine for the coronavirus, among other lifesaving measures — is surely a harbinger of a better future for us all,” he said in a statement.

“We are grateful to our forward-thinking government, committed as it is to bringing peace, healing and advancement to the world.”

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.

The Abrahamic Family House, to be built in Abu Dhabi, UAE (courtesy of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity)

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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