From Farhud to Friendship: My Recent Trip to the UAE
In June of 1941, my savta, then an eleven-year-old girl, sat by the window at the top of her grandparent’s home in Baghdad and watched as the people of her city ransacked her home down the road. She recounts how her parents had to cover her mouth and hold in her screams as she watched a man run off with a basket full of her beautiful dresses. What saved her and her family from the chaos of the Farhud was one Muslim neighbor who stood at the doorstep of their home proclaiming, “To get to them, you’ll first have to get through me,” and protected the Jewish family. When they eventually returned to their home they found it empty, and whatever did remain was smashed to pieces.
My savta often shares stories like these about her childhood in Iraq, especially the beauty and the wonderful life they had. She happily lived on a family compound where all of her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents enjoyed their time together. Her father was a professor of languages at the local university, and she was the only Jewish woman selected to attend the Royal Medical College her year.
My grandmother is proud of her origins, her family’s life in Iraq and their journey to Israel. But for me, these stories and events led to a relationship of mixed emotions, significantly tainted by the way that my grandparents had to leave. Given my family’s experience, I felt that while the Jews once had a place in the Arab world, the tides turned, leaving us no place there.
This way of thinking remained and progressed until 2020 with the historic announcement and signing of the Abraham Accords. This development made me realize that if diplomatic ties are possible between the Jewish State and Muslim states in the Arab world, then maybe the tides are turning again. Still, the sudden boom in Israeli and Jewish tourism to the UAE was shocking: These people must be crazy for trusting that they will be safe as openly Jewish individuals in a Muslim state!
Yet, when presented with the opportunity to join a historic delegation of Yeshiva University professors and students to the UAE, I knew I could not decline. Thanks to the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs at YU, I participated in a two-day trip that impacted my perspective on the role of Jewish people in the Arab world as I built off of my personal story as a Mizrachi Jew.
One of the most memorable moments was touring the exhibits at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai. While the museum serves as a center for many cultures of the world, there is a special focus on Judaism with both Holocaust and ancient Israel exhibits. Moreover, there are some parts of the museum centered on the bond between Judaism and Islam. One gallery contained a “Magic Bowl” from late 19th century Oman, written in Arabic with Hebrew and Aramaic calligraphy, an artifact from a cultural healing routine where Jews and Muslims would pray on each other’s behalf. More contemporary was a framed Jewish prayer for the welfare of the government and military of the UAE, written in Arabic, Hebrew and English, representing a return to the camaraderie between both groups.
Later that night, the museum hosted a special event titled “Interacting Philosophies, Shared Friendships” in partnership with Yeshiva University and the Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities in Abu Dhabi. The first-of-its-kind conference was a display of how intellectual pursuits of the past and present are built off of one another and reflect our interacting values. While the presentations were insightful, the most meaningful moments of the night came from meeting and speaking with two Emirati students from the MBZ University. My two new friends are studying Hebrew at the university, and we were able to converse about our studies, our schools, our personal lives, our religions and our languages, all while speaking in Hebrew! When I mentioned my surprise at discovering how similar the Hebrew and Arabic languages are, one of my new friends pointed to a big painting depicting a Jew and a Muslim sitting on a bench with the words “cousins meetup” written across the top. We are two peoples, but as the museum, the beautiful event between our universities and my new friends all highlighted, we are still people with a deep history and future of learning from and growing with one another.
Where does this positive sentiment towards Jews emanate from? The government certainly plays a large role with its progressing universal principles and tolerance. One of the women working at the Ministry of Tolerance translated for us a verse in the Quran which motivates her work — “There is no difference between us other than our good deeds” — emphasizing that tolerance for different religions, ethnicities and genders allows us to focus on the person for who they are and how they act.
Another government project which serves as a direct testament to the Emirati commitment to tolerance is the new Abrahamic Family House. Based in Abu Dhabi, the center contains religious prayer houses from the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What struck me the most while visiting was not only how they have created a space for the intersection of faith, but also for personal relationships and interactions. While speaking to the rabbinic couple of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, Rabbi Ben and Rabbanit Yael De Toledo, it became evident that as leaders they have cultivated strong friendships with the other religious leaders, including the resident priest and imam. In this sense, the opening of the Abrahamic Family House is not just a statement and project of connecting our faiths and houses of worship, but a vehicle of connecting individuals based on our unique but intertwined pasts.
Most astonishing was the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, the first celebration of Israeli Independence Day in the UAE, hosted by the Israeli embassy. Here, we witnessed the materialization of peace as Israelis and Jews mingled with the Emirati guests and the other foreign dignitaries discussing their ever-increasing collaboration. The most moving moment, however, was hearing both national anthems, Hatikvah and Ishy Bilady, sung together by the famous Israeli and Emirati singers, Nicole Raviv and Ahmed Alhosani, profoundly demonstrating the newfound but strong bond between the UAE and Israel.
At that moment I had to remind myself where I was standing. Not only are we Jews standing in the UAE, but we are proudly celebrating the Jewish State, and most of all, we are not doing it alone; we are side by side with Emirati dignitaries, lay leaders and religious leaders. Here was a great example of the “cousins” reuniting. Later, when another Israeli singer, Miki Gavrielov sang “Ani Veata Neshane et HaOlam” – that you and I will change the world, I realized that even though every one of us might not broker the next Abraham Accords, we can still make a difference in creating relationships that foster a better environment. Looking around, I felt empowered, comforted and as if I had now added another “point of reference” to my conception of the Jewish place in the Arab world.
My experience as a part of this historic delegation from Yeshiva University has drastically changed my perspective of the relationship between Jews and the Arab world. I will forever be grateful that I witnessed such monumental changes in global political, religious and social circles. So, while in the past my savta told me stories of religious persecution, exile and antagonism, today, I tell her a different narrative — one of tolerance, cooperation and friendship based on honoring our commonalities and our differences.
Photo Caption: YU students at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai with founder Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori
Photo Credit: Jacqueline Englanoff