Helping to Give Peace a Chance
Jumpstarting rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world
My visionary boss and mentor, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder and CEO Rabbi Marvin Hier, first launched our ad hoc outreach to the Arab world in Cairo in 1994. There, we urged the late Grand Mufti of Egypt and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy to meet with Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau to promote better interfaith relations. That meeting eventually took place and led to the Alexandria Statement, which served as a baseline for future interfaith efforts. Unfortunately, our other request for a fatwa – an Islamic legal opinion – against suicide bombing did not yield the clear, hoped-for result.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US and additional deadly terrorist attacks including the October 2002 bombings in Bali that left over 200 dead, I had the opportunity to meet the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid at his home. There, I learned that the former leader of the world’s largest Muslim nation was a Bible scholar and a philo-Semite. That meeting led to a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Wahid and Rabbi Lau denouncing Iran’s Holocaust denial, and to an international conference of Religions Against Terrorism in Bali. It was there that Sol Teichman became the only Holocaust survivor to have his personal story of suffering and survival broadcast live with simultaneous Arabic translation on satellite TV. A stunned audience of Muslim and Hindu teachers heard Teichman’s riveting narrative, many of them tearfully gathering around him.
Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center hosted the first delegation of religious Muslims from Indonesia to visit Israel. The trip included praying twice at Al-Aqsa Mosque, dancing with rabbis and students at a Hanukkah celebration at a yeshiva in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, and Shabbat dinner with my children and Israeli grandchildren. The delegation’s chief would tell me at the end of the visit, “We came here assuming there was a religious conflict but it turns out that there is a political dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. We see that religious rights are protected for all.” Wahid himself publicly defended that visit and its participants.
Over the years, the Center would “privately” host many Muslim dignitaries in Israel, including Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Surin, a Muslim and former foreign minister of Thailand, had a favorite spot in Israel – the City of David excavations.
Over the last decade, there would be business, political and cultural figures from the Gulf. Even a group from Kuwait quietly made their way to the Jewish state. Some met with top Israeli leaders; others made themselves at home in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market.
The day after US President Donald Trump announced he was moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and despite predictions that they would cancel, 24 religious leaders from Bahrain arrived in Jerusalem as our guests. They prayed at the mosque or church or their choice, some visited the amazing campus of the Shalva organization that serves youngsters with multiple disabilities, and then they topped off their visit dancing with Chabad hasidim in Mamilla Mall before lighting the first Hanukkah candle in the shadow of the Old City’s walls!
A key player in transforming the road to normalization is Bahrain’s courageous King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. When we met with his royal highness at his palace in 2017, Rabbi Hier broke protocol and broke the ice by firmly grabbing the king’s hand and chanting in Hebrew the Jewish blessing for royalty. The king reportedly would later tell his government leaders, “That was the first time someone came to me not to ask for something but to give me a blessing.”
During that historic meeting, which was beamed across the Gulf and into Iran, King Hamad blasted the Arab boycott against Israel. When I asked him what would he think about a Wiesenthal Center invitation for his citizens to visit Israel, he responded in front of his entire cabinet: “My citizens can travel anywhere.” And soon enough, they did.
Then the king went further. He wrote the Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, wherein an Arab head of state declared that everyone should be free to pray as he sees fit, and even free not to pray at all.
That went beyond tearing down stereotypes. The declaration, first read by his son, Sheikh Nasser, before 400 religious leaders in Los Angeles, was a taboo-buster.
Indeed, Bahrain protects and venerates all religions and is home to an active Hindu temple. Rabbi Hier and I were honored to participate in the first Jewish prayer quorum in decades at Bahrain’s synagogue during the historic Bahrain Global Economic Conference that sought to help set the stage for Israeli-Palestinian peace. To ensure closer interfaith ties, King Hamad has also launched the Bahrain Center for Peaceful Coexistence, led by respected Sheikh Khalid Bin Khalifa.
All of this, along with the United Arab Emirates’ invitation to Pope Francis to lead an open-air mass, helped accelerate the pace and scope of change.
Many of these small and not so small breakthroughs happened because we reached out to break their stereotypes by first breaking ours. And expect that the speed of change between the Gulf states and the Jewish state will increase, for three reasons:
First: Social media. It has destroyed the stranglehold of information about Jews, Judaism and Israel forever.
Second: Iran. If the UAE-Israel deal had been an arranged marriage, then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could demand “shidduch gelt” (a financial gift traditionally given to the matchmaker).
Third: Economics. More tourism for the UAE and more open access for Middle East investors to Israel’s dynamic “startup nation” tech ecosystem, which can open up new markets across the Middle East and Asia.
Of course, we hope that Bahrain will be next, followed by Oman and please God, soon Saudi Arabia. Another Arab nation in Africa with which we have had contacts – Sudan – is anxious to move forward.
All Arab and Muslim countries sitting on the sidelines should look to the mutually beneficial relationship between Azerbaijan – a 96% Muslim nation – and the Jewish state, as a role model for what’s possible. Just give peace a chance.
Speaking of peace and a lack thereof: The Palestinian Authority and its global anti-Semitic campaigners should please take note: The peace train has left the station. If you don’t have the guts to get on board, get out of the way and let Palestinian peace-seekers take over.