Earlier this month, the Washington Post published a trunk developer of an editorial on the Abraham Accords. It was an absolute must to repeal the agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, its protagonists of cynicism, election campaigning, anchoring of authoritarianism, the involvement of the United States in sectarian conflicts in the region and treason the Palestinians to blame cause. To be fair, the editors conceded that the normalization deal – they strongly opposed the term "peace deal" – was positive in the strict sense, but nevertheless claimed it was the product of US President Donald Trump's misguided approach to the Middle East East. This is tough stuff.
The Post appreciates the White House deal too much, but also a critical but little-noticed (among the mainstream media and foreign policy community) consequence of the Abraham Agreement: the normalization of Jews and Judaism in an Arab and Muslim society. That's a big deal.
I view the efforts of the Emirates to explore and understand the Jewish faith and its reach to Jews from the perspective of someone who can best be described as "culturally Jewish." I feel strong about my identity, but it is not a function of any allegiance to Jewish law and custom. Barely. I complain bitterly when I go to the synagogue and often have to have a snack on the way to the Yom Kippur services during the annual fast. I should also note that I am friends with Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States. We've broken bread too many times to count. We share a number of interests that many men our age share: our children, 1980s music, sports, politics, and good food. I appreciate our friendship. It doesn't affect my work either.
The contrast between what the UAE is doing through the Abraham Agreement and their broader efforts to reach out to other faiths, especially Catholics, is way above the norm to which I have become accustomed since traveling to the Middle East and lived there three decades ago. During my time in Cairo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was not impressed by the anti-Zionism that was part of the expected political discourse, but by the anti-Semitism that was part of the cultural discourse. This phenomenon was closely linked to the government's abdication of critical areas such as education and culture to the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime's war of positions with the Islamists. In Saudi Arabia, school children were taught that Jews are descendants of pigs and monkeys. When I was a student in Damascus, Syria, 26 summers ago, one night regime agents treated me to a long and exhausting line of anti-Semitic canards for believing it was important to teach me what I didn't learn in the United States . I don't remember any of those narratives that distinguished between Israelis and Jews, which undermined a fundamental belief among apologists and the gullible one that there is a sharp distinction between criticism of Israel's behavior and the grotesque image of Jews that all too often appear in region occurs in the EU.
By signing the Abrahamic Accords, the Emiratis turned the narrative upside down. Your contact with Israel has sparked a refreshing interest in Jews and Judaism. The English-language Khaleej Times published a supplement to Rosh Hashanah. There were Rosh Hashanah services in Abu Dhabi – a first (although there is a Jewish community in Dubai that previously celebrated the New Year). The government has ordered kosher meals to be offered in hotels and at the country's airlines. And in line with recent years, the Emirates' Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, wished the Jews "Shana tova" in a tweet. When was the last time other foreign ministers did that? It is important to note that the Emiratis put a lot of time and effort into building an interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi that centered a mosque, church, and synagogue called the Abrahamic Family House, even before the so-called Abrahamic Accords gave religious tolerance. Earlier this year, I met one of Washington's most famous rabbis at the airport, who was waiting for a flight home from the Emirates. He had been there to take part in an initiative by the Emirates government to promote tolerance.
For many, I am sure that the Emiratis' contact with Jews seems like a cynical trick. I can already hear the objections to this piece and imagine the Twitter criticism: "The Emiratis are just & # 39; Jews who launder their terrible records on Yemen and human rights & # 39;" or "This is a country's cynical publicity that wants to assert itself as a model of tolerance, but it is not a model of tolerance at all as long as political opponents are incarcerated. “These are, of course, legitimate concerns. I'm hardly naive, but I'm ready to take the Emiratis at their word, if only because they seem so seriously interested in normalizing Judaism. And even if it's public relations, I'm still okay with that. After all, it's better than the opposite, in which there is a race to determine who in the region can outdo each other in terms of hatred of Jews. The Emiratis also seem to have generated positive momentum in the region. The Saudis, who, despite reports of pressure from the Trump administration, continue to refuse to develop relations with Israel, are rethinking their own approach to the Jewish faith. The Egyptians had a brief moment of introspection a few years ago about the past and the role of Jews in Egyptian society, but the problem remains tense. I've heard young Iraqis do the same thing, which I care deeply about, because my uncle Anwar is from Baghdad and received a scholarship from the University of Denver in 1947 to never return for fear of his safety. Perhaps what the Emiratis do – regardless of what anyone thinks of their intentions – will produce something good in a region that it desperately needs.
In this way editors, journalists and analysts can pile criticism of the Abraham Agreement as much as they like. They may turn out to be right, and normalization between the UAE and Israel isn't all that matters, but it may be bigger for this Jewish kid. I look forward to going to the synagogue in Abu Dhabi, even if I complain about it on the way there.