'There were places where we walked with yarmulkes'

US Jewish leaders gush about visit to ‘tolerant’ United Arab Emirates

'The clear drive now is to a more open society, more moderation,' Conference of Presidents head Malcolm Hoenlein says after 4-day trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Stephen M. Greenberg, left and Malcolm Hoenlein, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 18, 2016 (COP/Avi Hayun)

The United Arab Emirates is increasingly open to embracing Israel and Jews, the heads of a large delegation of American Jewish leaders said Sunday after a recent four-day visit to the country.

“It was a very important and interesting and, I think, strategically important visit,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We met with everybody at the highest levels,” Greenberg said, adding that he was asked by his Emirati interlocutors not to name names. “But I can assure you that the meetings were substantively important. We talked about Iran, Yemen, Qatar; we talked about extremism and they made it very clear to us that they’re very anxious to see support for the Saudis.”

At a press conference Sunday, ahead of the Conference’s annual Israel Leadership Mission in Jerusalem this week, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference’s longtime executive vice chairman, described a very warm welcome for the delegation, adding that the Emirates is keen on presenting itself as fighting Islamic extremism.

“They have a minister of tolerance,” he said, adding that the UAE recognized all the religious groups.

“The clear drive now is to a more open society, more moderation. There were places where we walked with yarmulkes and people didn’t take them off. There was never one comment, not one look at anybody at any time during the week.”


Hoenlein, who also recently visited Qatar, stressed that the Conference of Presidents made it clear to its interlocutors in the UAE that it represented neither the US administration nor the Israeli government. At the same time, he said that his organization is being courted by many Muslim and Arab countries that are interested in improving ties with the Jewish world.

“There is a shift. This is not something people could have imagined 10 or even 5 years ago, how an open Arab Muslim country, almost without exception, wants to meet with us and wanted us to come. We have several invitations outstanding, there is a desire to meet with us.”

Arab leaders are warming to the idea of engaging with Jerusalem, but feel they cannot do so publicly before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached, as they fear negative repercussions from their citizens.

The national flags of medal winners at the 2017 Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi, with the Israeli flag replaced by the flag of the International Judo Federation (second from right) due to the United Arab Emirates Judo Federation’s ban on Israeli symbols at the event. Israel’s Gili Cohen took bronze at the competition, which took place on October 26, 2017. The other flags, from left to right, are of Brazil, Belgium and Romania. (YouTube screen capture)

Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents delegates asked Emirati officials about the fact that Israeli judoka were not allowed to display their flag or have their national anthem at a tournament in Abu Dhabi last year.

“We certainly raised the issue,” he said, but indicated that the UAE did not commit to allowing Israeli athletes to compete as such in future tournaments.

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