Tolerance, coexistence: How did a yeshiva end up in the UAE?
The yeshiva head stressed that it was “truly remarkable” to see how the Jewish community felt so safe in the UAE, especially considering how antisemitism is increasing in so many places.
Tolerance and coexistence were the key words last week for Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah as it became the first gap-year yeshiva to travel to the United Arab Emirates since the Abraham Accords were signed.
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Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah’s educational approach is rooted in both offering an intellectually challenging and inspiring Torah curriculum alongside promoting individual achievement and excellence, all in a thought-provoking Modern Orthodox environment.
DO You Hate Me?
Reflections on planning the impossible trip to Dubai
Rabbi Aryeh Wasserman
Director of Student Life & Ra”m Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah
This was the question in the recesses of all our minds; staff, students, parents. Yet you will be shocked to discover who actually verbalized the query aloud. It wasn’t us. Keep reading to find out.
When we were urged by our generous sponsors to begin thinking about a yeshiva trip during a world pandemic for a group of non Israeli citizens from Israel to the United Arab Emirates – well lets just say I was skeptical about the possibility of success. Yet, with G-d’s help, after several coordinated vaccine runs, navigating through Israeli bureaucracy to receive dozens of entry permits, the improbable expedited renewed US passport in Israel, cancelled flights due to the impeccable timing of operation Guardian of the Walls, and almost 150 negative covid tests later, we succeeded in bringing all of our students from Israel to Dubai and back again. Was it all worth it for an excursion to Dubai? Why would any Yeshiva value such a trip?
(The purpose of this reflection is not to summarize the actual Yeshiva trip – read this article from the Jerusalem Post to familiarize yourself with the details of the trip for reference before continuing.)
As the one responsible for planning the trip, I gained valuable insight into the true tolerance that is practiced in Dubai. In a strange way it saddened me. For as much as I love Eretz Yisrael and I truly believe that the future of all Jews rests with the modern return to our ancient promised land, we as a government and as a people, have much to improve upon before we are worthy of complete redemption. There are some valuable lessons we can learn from our cousins in the Persian Gulf state. Much of the “difficulty” in planning this trip stemmed from Israel bureaucracy; in contrast, the flexibility and understanding that came out of Dubai allowed us to proceed with our trip, even when the prospect of actually going was still tenuous a week before scheduled departure.
I had the distinct honor of befriending H.E. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, founder of the Crossroads Museum of Civilization, a fascinating collection of museums which sit right next to the Dubai Creek, with original artifacts ranging from items belonging to Suleman the Great to a copy of the Guggenheim Bible, writings of Aristotelian thought to draft plans to extend the Hijaz from Baghdad to Chaifa under the British Mandate. Before meeting him, my only significant interaction with an Arab was when a teenager from a nearby Arab village threw a rock at me, smashing my windshield on my way to a student’s wedding. In contrast, this amazing human being was honored to have me visit him. “Dearest Rabbi” he would start many of his messages to me over Whatsapp. I arranged for a meeting with him in person at his museum to see what he and his museum was all about and to gage how much time we should dedicate during our group visit. As I waited for him in one of his galleries, looking at the fascinating pieces of history on display, I thought we would spend a half hour to an hour together. I really was unprepared for what was about to happen.
In walked Ahmed, dressed in his traditional Emirati clothes with a warm smile on his face and an excitement in his eyes. He proudly gave me a private tour of his brand new Holocaust exhibit – the first and only exhibit of its kind in any Islamic country. He welcomed constructive critiques of display signs and he took suggestions for some of the Hebrew sources he wished to use in the museum. We then moved on to some of the other galleries and we discussed differences between shared stories of Islam and Judaism, we argued about what was and was not part of the cannon of the Jewish Bible, and we spoke peacefully about a replica of the Dome of the Rock which he referred to as Al-Aqsa. Despite the different worlds we were products of, we embraced each other and our commonalities, and he was excited to help me in any way he could to plan this unprecedented trip – from calling some friends of his to see about additional educational speaking opportunities, to inviting the entire Yeshiva to have dinner in the majlis at his residence. He truly inherited the hachnasat orchim of our shared ancestor Avraham Avinu. He has been a pioneer in peaceful Arab-Judeo relations years before the actualization of the historic Abraham Accords. We ended up spending several hours together. It was only after that meeting that I did a bit more research about who he was and realized that he wasn’t just some random guy who owned a museum, but a well known public figure who served many roles in the UAE government before retiring to work on sharing his passions for knowledge and peace with the world.
A conversation I had over the phone still rings with me. I called up a resort to inquire about pricing for a falcon show (a traditional art and sport of the Bedouins of the region). The person whom I spoke with, after I informed him our group would be coming from Israel couldn’t help himself, “are you Christian?” he asked. I responded, “I am Jewish – I hope that’s okay”, to which he hurriedly assured me, “no, of course it is – our government has made it very clear that there is zero tolerance for no tolerance for any peoples from any faith – I just never thought I would ever actually be having a conversation with a Jew.”
I walked around the streets of Dubai and rode the Burj Khalifa elevator to the heavens with my tzitzit out and my kippah revealed. While at first I was hesitant, the more people I met, and the longer I was in Dubai, the sense of anxiety of publicly expressing my Jewishness dissipated. To my pleasant surprise, the Chabad informed me that the hotel I was looking at for our group would have a kosher ready kitchen by the time we were scheduled to arrive. When I met with the managers of the Hilton Al Habtoor to discuss our group, they were thrilled to accommodate us and have us be their inaugural kosher guests. They treated us like royalty and were honored by our presence. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it were possible.
After returning to Israel armed with my newfound sense of security, I informed the students and parents that contrary to their concerns of going incognito, it was extremely safe for a Jew in Dubai – perhaps safer than in Israel! We could wear our kippot no problem. I was extremely excited but also nervous that the Israeli government would prevent us from going due to the insanity of obtaining entry permits; a stark contrast to the people of Dubai who were waiting for us with open arms.
Then began Operation Guardian of the Walls. Flights from Israel to Dubai were being cancelled, and political tensions were sky high. I was requested to look into security options for our group in the event that we could still go. (This was less than two weeks before our scheduled departure). The response I received from Dubai was stunning. Messages of support and safety from the incoming barrage of rocket fire. Responses to my tentative “we may have to cancel messages” of “we totally understand and are flexible with your situation – we hope you will still be able to come and will work with you to ensure accommodations can be confirmed last minute.” The bus company basically laughed at my request for security quotes informing me that Dubai is safe for all peoples – “no need for security sir.” This was totally not what I was expecting. Maybe not all Arabs should be lumped together? We as Jews should understand this more than anyone – yet here I was reviewing this ethos in practical reality from our cousins in Dubai.
Yet my hesitations and concerns were understandable based on my upbringing and based on modern Jewish history. I consulted many people in Dubai that I had met, both Jews and Arabs, about whether in light of the political situation, it was wise to bring a Jewish group to the United Arab Emirates, despite the show of peace and the Abraham Accords. As mentioned, no one in Dubai seemed to think there was a reason for us to not come. The black sheep of the group, an ultraorthodox Jewish businessman whom I met in the course of trip planning, was the only one who questioned whether it was responsible to take the Yeshiva in light of the operation and the political mood. Despite the good show of faith, he shared with me that there were plenty of antisemitic social media posts that were liked by his “so called Emerati friends”. Yet a few days later he sent me an article featuring a picture of him in his very Jewish traditional garb embracing an Emerati dressed in his kandura and bedecked with his ghutra at a Holocaust memorial ceremony held in Dubai. His accompanying message to me with the linked article was “Did you see this one? A bit embarrassing for me…”
It was during our visit to Ahmed’s museum that we bumped into Dr. Essam Al Najdy, Director of ICOM-UAE (International Council of Museums), who was visiting the museum to give it special international certification. He was intrigued by our group. While I was busy with the logistics of the busses and food, he spoke to another faculty member inquiring if there was a way he could address our group during our stay. While our schedule was already jam packed, I offered him a slot during the final dinner, right before we were to depart for the airport as that was really the only time which could work. Although not ideal, he agreed anyway, and came with his lovely wife to the hotel where we were having dinner.
I really had zero idea who he was or what he wished to speak about – so while the students were getting food and finishing Mincha, I sat with them first to get to know him a bit and get a sense of what he would speak about and how best to frame this random speaker for our students. He shared with me what he does for ICOM, his Egyptian upbringing, and his academic work with Metatron Academy. It was fascinating to me that this Islamic Egyptian professor spends his life sharing ideas from the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal work attributed to the biblical character of Chanoch. In the Jewish canon, Chanoch receives very little attention – a brief mention in the lineage from Adam to Noach in Genesis. Yet this man’s teachings and life work was due to this relatively insignificant character to the average religious Jew. What was more, during my conversation with him we spoke about his knowledge of the Holocaust. He shared with me that while growing up in Egypt, he had never even heard of the Holocaust and to this day, in Egyptian schools, there is no education on the subject. Only his individual curiosity led him to this knowledge. When I asked him if an exhibit like Ahmed’s could be done in Egypt, his response was, “it would take a lot of bravery”.
While he has lectured and taught for many years, he shared with the group that he was a bit nervous because it was the first time he had the opportunity to address a group of Jews. The most striking thing was when he looked at the group and asked unabashedly, “Do you hate me? Do you hate me because I am an Egyptian Muslim? Do you hate me simply because I am different?” I hope you can appreciate the irony of the moment: a group of Jews sitting in an Arab country being asked by an Egyptian Muslim, “do you hate me?”. It was inspiring to hear this professor espousing a message of love and a common goal to discover truth.
When dealing with government agencies in the UAE it was really a breath of fresh air compared to the very challenging months dealing with the Israeli government for entry permits. In order to enter Abu Dhabi, (a separate Emirate with individual governance) we were all required to procure a PCR test to enter. As we approached the checkpoint to cross over the border, I informed every participant on the bus to have their passport and PCR test ready in hand. I was nervous about the extra time it would take, as we were already going to arrive slightly late for our appointment at the Grand Mosque. Upon arrival, a border officer boarded the bus and I explained the nature of our group and that all the students were ready with their passports and PCR tests in hand. He looked at my passport and PCR test, and then went off the bus and brought back a pack of ice cold water for us and wished us a nice day. I wish I could say with confidence this could have happened in Israel.
Another example: in the airport, when we attempted to check in for our return flight, I was faced with a heart stopping moment when the check-in attendants informed me that the Israeli government was requesting individual verification for each and every student. Even though I explained to them the nature of our trip and that all students had the exact same documentation the Israeli government was insisting to make the process much more arduous and time consuming than necessary. Thankfully the attendants on the Dubai side were extremely helpful and ensured that we all got through in a timely manner. Hopefully the Israeli government can learn from our friends in Dubai and continue to improve on the bureaucratic level.
This trip was an incredible experience on many levels especially for me personally. It gave our students, and all those following our trip virtually through Whatsapp and social media, an incredible peek behind the Arabian curtain. It showed us a glimpse of a world where we can co-exist with our cousins, and dispelled many assumptions we may have had. It is my hope that as the friendship between Israel and the UAE continues to blossom some of the amazing traits and middot of their country rubs off on ours.
I sent out a survey about the trip to the participants upon our return to receive feedback about what went well and which things could use improvement. The final question (multiple choice) I asked them to answer was, Would you describe this trip as educational, fun, or eye-opening? The answer was unanimous: eye opening.