Rabbi Elie Abadie was previously based in New York, where, over the years, he was the spiritual leader of two different shuls, including the Safra Synagogue in Manhattan. The 60-year-old rabbi, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, answered the call a few months ago for a rabbinical leader of the Arab Gulf States, which, through the good offices of President Trump, were entering into new peace deals with Israel.
Rabbi Abadie now lives in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and the news this week is that he is in the midst of organizing the Jewish communities of the Gulf States, which include Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and several others in the area. The number of Jews in all those countries combined may come to several thousand in total. He says that since his announcement this week, members of the miniscule Jewish communities of Egypt and Jordan have already reached out to him.
While it’s probably accurate that Jews from around the world will not be packing up and moving to any of these Gulf States anytime soon, they will be opening a new dimension for Jewish and kosher tourists in the future.
I suggested this idea when I spoke with Rabbi Abadie on Monday and he agreed, with one rejoinder. He said that he does not discount the possibility that Jews living in Europe and dealing with growing anti-Semitism in many of those countries may see some of these Gulf countries as a place to move to and in which they can set up a home without having to deal with Jew hatred.
That would be quite a reversal, if you can imagine that: Jews fleeing Europe, knowing that they can be treated with dignity and respect in Arab countries. What a jolt to reality something like that would signal.
Last week on the front page of this newspaper we featured a photograph of our old friend Gabriel Boxer, also known as “The Kosher Guru,” who spent a week in Morocco as a guest of the government there, consulting with officials of the tourist ministry on how to attract more Jewish kosher-consuming guests to the country.
One of the things that Gabe shared with me the other day was an inquiry by government officials in Morocco who were curious about why Jews were flocking to the Emirates by the thousands. Certainly being able to travel freely to and tour Arab countries is a great novelty to Jewish travelers who were previously not just unwelcome but unable to fly into or even over any of those countries.
The Moroccan officials talked to Gabe about the deep and rich history of Jewish life in the country, and the fact is that we have been able to travel to and visit Morocco all along. But still, travel there was limited, and now, according to available tourism information, more than 50,000 Jewish visitors have flown into the Emirates and Bahrain over the last few months. Morocco is hoping for some of that business forward.
For example, the Rambam was born and lived in Fez for a while. During his lifetime, more than 1,000 years ago, Jews in Morocco were given a choice of either converting to Islam or facing death. The Rambam wrote “The Epistle of Martyrdom,” which gave Jews permission, if you will, to live as “Crypto-Jews”—that means Muslim in public and Jews in their private lives at home.
As for Rabbi Abadie, he is excited about the future possibilities of what diplomatic relations and open borders between Israel and the Gulf States will mean for Israel’s image in the world and the great contribution of peace that continues to develop in the Middle East.
Right now on the drawing board are the establishment of a beit din, the construction of a mikveh, and introducing widespread availability of kosher food, which probably includes the opening of kosher restaurants over the near term. While construction of a mikveh has not begun yet, the rabbi says that these countries—especially the Emirates, which is a compilation of islands, and Bahrain—are located on the water. “There are natural bodies of water everywhere,” he says.
Opening up a venue like Arab states for Jews is a great breakthrough but a matter that, by its very nature, has to proceed slowly. What is becoming apparent, he says, is that citizens of the Gulf States see Jews and Israelis as somewhat different entities. While we know that the reality is that Jews and Israel are one, for people who have for the most part lived with limited access to free speech, their perception of Jews and Israel is somewhat skewed.
On that count, Rabbi Abadie point out two interesting things. He says that now that he is living in Dubai he feels completely safe and at ease. He walks around the city with his kippah on and people greet him with “Shalom” and expressions of how pleased they are to have begun a new relationship with Israel.
Then there is the matter of security. I asked the rabbi whether he has any kind of safety personnel protecting him. After all, he is a Jew living in a Muslim/ Arab country. He says that when he first moved to the Emirates he discussed the matter with government officials and they offered him quite a fascinating answer. They said that if he wants visible security personnel around him, they will be glad to provide that for him. They assured him, however, that whether he sees it or not, he should rest assured that he is being protected.
Earlier this week Gabe Boxer sent me a photo of him walking with one Moroccan government tourist official, but the photo shows nine men walking through Marrakesh. He pointed out that the seven other people around them were security personnel.
You might be wondering why it seems that people can fly in out of Morocco and the UAE in a seemingly free fashion while Israel is just about completely sealed shut to everyone, and El Al, Israel’s airline, is hardly even flying any flights from the U.S. into Tel Aviv.
No, COVID did not skip the Gulf States. Boxer points out that because of the pandemic there is a 9 p.m. curfew throughout Morocco. Rabbi Abadie says that, per capita, the UAE is the leading country in distribution of the vaccination to its 9.7 million people.
Another dimension of the reporting on coronavirus news is that the Gulf States do not feature a free press or, for that matter, election campaigns. These countries are run basically by the royal families with a legislative body that guides the leadership on the needs of the people. The big decisions are made by the king and his ruling family members.
The bottom line here is that when we will once again be able to fly to Israel, instead of stopping in London or Paris on the way, you will no doubt be tempted to make the three-hour trip by air to Dubai.
When you do that, you can rest assured that Rabbi Abadie will be ready to welcome you to what will shortly be his new shul in the city. Keep in mind that the kosher restaurants in these cities will probably require making a reservation before you even leave New York.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.