OPINION: Jews are not merely tolerated in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, we are embraced

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OPINION: Jews are not merely tolerated in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, we are embraced

Rick Sopher reflects on a moving and historic interfaith trip to the Middle East.

Rick Sopher on an historic inter-faith trip to the Middle East.
Rick Sopher on an historic inter-faith trip to the Middle East.

Visiting Saudi Arabia, openly, as a Jewish person, as we are now able to do is already a dayenu (enough for us).

After all, on my previous visits to Saudi on business, I had never stated I was Jewish and awkwardly completed the visa application, which at that time required a statement of religious affiliation (none of the available categories, such as Sunni or Shia, seemed to apply).

But this time, we were warmly welcomed, even in Madinah, the city of the Muslim prophet Muhammad which until just two years ago was completely off-limits to non-Muslims. We not only visited, but planted a date tree; not just any type of date, but the highly treasured ajwa variety which is only grown in Madinah.

Rick Sopher

Being the first Jewish person to plant a date tree in Madinah for 1400 years was a “pinch me” moment and deeply appreciated by me and each of the group of Jews, Christians and Muslims on our trip, who were also invited to plant a tree.

The tree-planting felt like a symbol of the tremendous changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and especially in its attitudes toward people of other religions.

These changes are led from the top down by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and are embodied in Saudi’s “Vision 2030” blueprint which remarkably contained a definition of Islamic Values as those of “moderation and tolerance”.

These changes were evident to our group in a visit I arranged earlier this month to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Our meetings with Saudi Ambassadors, heads of various important educational institutions including one “building bridges with diverse peoples and cultures” as well as artists and local communities suggested that these changes are already penetrating deep into the system.

For example, as the recent Impact-se review showed, the enmity toward Jews that used to be contained in school textbooks in Saudi Arabia has been almost completely ripped out. And since 50% of the population of Saudi Arabia is less than 20 years old, it can be hoped that these changes will have an immediate impact.

Rick Sopher planting a date tree.

It is yet to be seen how deeply this aim from the rulers that their Islam should be “moderate and tolerant” will pervade the minds of 30 million Saudi residents and 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. But in private meetings, we were impressed by two Imams that are trying to get the message across.

Sheikh Mohammed al Issa of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Abdulla bin Bayyah in Abu Dhabi both actively promote this more moderate form of Islam and have energetically gathered thousands of other imams to sign up to charters supporting such an approach.

To view the tree planting ceremony, click here.

Interestingly, both their charters refer back to a document drawn up by Islamic prophet Muhammad in around 623CE called the “Charter of Madinah”, a document which agrees a co-existence with the Jewish tribes that lived in Madinah at the time, some of whom owned date tree orchards.

We were also fortunate to be in Abu Dhabi on the first Shabbat after the official opening of the Abrahamic Family House, the site containing a spectacularly beautiful synagogue, church and mosque. The synagogue is the same 30 metre cubed size as the church and the mosque, which is rather remarkable when one considers the old history of height limitations on synagogues in Muslim lands.

Even more remarkable, the elegant synagogue building, like the whole site, was all generously paid for by the UAE government.

Following the Shabbat service, together with a Muslim scholar colleague, Dr Abdulla Galadari, we were able to hold a discussion with a private audience on the deep connections between the Qur’an and the Torah. It was effectively the first interfaith discussion held on the site of the Abrahamic Family House after its official opening.

Many in the room, which included the newly installed Rabbi Ben de Toledo, were amazed at the closeness of the language and concepts contained in both the Torah and the Qur’an, a subject that represents an important strand of my research work.

In short, when comparing those two scriptures, the similarities are greater than the differences.

By the end of our trip, I had the feeling that Jewish people in particular were not just being tolerated in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but were now actually being embraced. This is quite different from the perceptions of those countries I had growing up. It does feel that a generous hand of friendship is now on offer from our friends in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

I feel deep gratitude for that – and it seems obvious that the offer should be warmly embraced.

  • Rick Sopher is a businessman and philanthropist
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