The Arab world re-embraces its Jews
JIT SLOGAN Houthi rebels, who control northern Yemen, is brutal. “Death to Israel, curse on the Jews,” reads in part. So it was no shock when the group drove the Jews out of its area of control. What might be surprising is where some of these Jews ended up. Yusuf Hamdi and his extended family were rescued during a mission organized by the UNAmerica, Qatar and United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates) in 2021. Mr. Hamdi and his company then passed up a chance to go to Israel, becoming instead the first Yemeni Jews to settle in the United Arab Emirates.
the United Arab Emirates benefits offered: a rent-free villa, a luxury car and monthly welfare checks. This is all part of an effort to plant new Jewish communities in the country. Since the government declared 2019 the year of tolerance and officially recognized the existence of Jews in the United Arab Emirates, new kosher restaurants and a Jewish center have sprung up. During the Hanukkah festival last year, the state erected large menorahs in city squares (pictured) He plans to open a state-funded synagogue later this year. “Jews are back in the Middle East,” says Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi Jew who fled to Britain but resettled in Dubai last year.
From Morocco to the Gulf, a surprising number of Arab countries are welcoming Jews back and embracing their Jewish heritage. The reasons vary. The failures and excesses of Arab nationalism and Islamism have forced many countries to rethink chauvinist dogmas. Modernizing autocrats abandoned communal tropes and pursued multicultural agendas. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer considered a priority in the region. “The Arab world has too many problems to care about Palestine anymore,” says Kamal Alam, an expert on Syria and its Jewish diaspora. “Instead, they reluctantly see Israel and the Jews as role models for leading a prosperous country that thrives without oil.”
Before the creation of Israel in 1948, more Jews lived in the rest of the Arab world than in Palestine. At least a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. So was the beauty queen of Iraq in 1947. But after the creation of Israel and its displacement of the Palestinians, the Arab rulers turned against their Jewish subjects. Many have been stripped of their citizenship and property. State media and school textbooks encouraged anti-Semitism, and sermons by Muslim preachers fanned the flames. The Arab states expelled almost all non-Israeli Jews from the region, except for a few thousand.
In recent years, however, the mood has changed dramatically. Most Arabs have no memory of the great Arab-Israeli wars of the last century. More moderate views have been encouraged by leaders who see the Jewish state as a potential trading partner and ally against Iran, and who seek greater acceptance in the West. The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, for example, organize multicultural gatherings and often muzzle religious people who stray from the beaten path. Sympathetic portrayals of Jews have appeared in Arab films and TV shows; documentaries have explored the area’s Jewish roots. Some Arab universities have opened departments of Jewish history. The change in attitude is such that when four Arab countries, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates– agreed to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, there were no major protests.
Saudi Arabia has not officially made peace with Israel. But the kingdom – once one of the most closed and intolerant countries in the world – now welcomes Jews, even Israelis (if they travel with foreign passports). Hebrew can be heard at fairs and festivals. An Israeli psychic performed at a recent royal party. Anti-Jewish slanders were taken from Saudi textbooks. To the dismay of some, an Israeli rabbi named Jacob Herzog is a frequent visitor to Riyadh, the capital. He sits in cafes in ultra-Orthodox attire and distributes prayer books. Sometimes he posts photos of himself dancing with merchants in the bazaar. “Jews were afraid to say they were Jews in the kingdom,” says Mr. Herzog, who calls himself the chief rabbi of Saudi Arabia. “Now we embark.”
This goes hand in hand with Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to attract tourists and investment. The crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has defied clerics by sponsoring archaeological digs of Jewish sites in hopes of one day attracting Jewish tourists. In November, an Israeli opened Habitas, a luxury hotel in Al Ula, an ancient rock city. Prince Muhammad has located one of his pet projects, a $500 billion high-tech city called Neom, on the kingdom’s northwest coast – to better attract Israeli expertise, his advisers say. “The Saudis are increasingly closer to the Jews than to the Palestinians and the Lebanese,” says Sultan al-Mousa, the author of a best-selling Saudi novel about a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.
In Egypt, the government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is renovating Jewish cemeteries and what was once the largest synagogue in the Middle East. This may, in part, be an effort to charm America, which is giving Egypt a lot of help. Elsewhere, the motivations are clearer. Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime in Syria is restoring synagogues and has reached out to many Syrian Jews in New York, welcoming a delegation of them to Damascus. “Syria is engaging with its Jewish exiles in order to restore its image as protector of religious minorities and to connect with communities that could possibly give it some political clout in Washington at a time when it has very little,” says David Lesch of Trinity University in Texas.
Israel’s Mizrahi Jews are also driving change in the region. With roots in the Middle East, many of them feel marginalized in Israel, where schools tend to focus on European Jewish history. Large numbers of Mizrahim went to Morocco, some hoping to build a new housing complex for Jews in Marrakesh. Others pack dozens of flights each week between Tel Aviv and Dubai. Those who stay put are more open about their heritage. Unlike their grandparents, who listened to Umm Kulthum, an Egyptian diva, in secret, young Mizrahim blast Arabic music in public. In 2015, three sisters of Yemeni descent released Israel’s first Arab chart. “Coldness turns into curiosity about the region,” says Liel Maghen, who heads the Center for Regional Initiatives, a think tank in Jerusalem. “There is an Arabization of Israeli culture.”
Some have a cynical view of all bonhomie. “I will imprison you [Palestinians] at checkpoints. And then take a selfie [Dubai’s] towers,” sings Noam Shuster-Eliassi, an Israeli comedian, in his satirical song “Dubai, Dubai” (which is in Arabic). Others fear Jews will be targeted in the event of a popular backlash against the region’s despots. But the trajectory of Morocco suggests that the improvement in relations could continue. The kingdom started reaching out decades ago. Jews of Moroccan origin can recover their citizenship. The country has a Jewish museum and a new center for Jewish studies and has restored dozens of ancient Jewish sites, notes Avraham Moyal, a Moroccan-born rabbi. “We broke the taboo.” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Welcome back”