Our Man In Dubai

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The skyline of Dubai as seen from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

The Abraham Accords are changing the landscape of the Gulf region, and a modern-day Jewish Renaissance man is changing the landscape of that region’s nascent Jewish community. Recently appointed as the Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the United Arab Emirates, the multi-lingual Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie brings with him a fitting competency born of a background steeped in Middle Eastern traditions and an enthusiasm and appreciation for his role and host country.

Rabbi Abadie was born in Lebanon to a distinguished Sephardic family with rabbinical lineage dating back to 15th century Spain. He grew up in Mexico City and studied in New York, where he received Rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and an M.D. from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in gastroenterology.

Rabbi Abadie was formerly the founding Rabbi of the Edmund J. Safra Synagogue and founder and Rabbinical Advisor of the Moise Safra Community Center in Manhattan. He is also the president of the JJAC (Justice for Jews from Arab Countries), founder of the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan, and served as the Director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University.

This very busy Rabbi, who is also a chazzan and a sofer, currently lives in Dubai. He shared with me his thoughts on what it is like to live as a Jew in the UAE and his vision for the future of its Jewish community.

Can you describe what led to your transition from Rav of a shul on the Upper East Side to Senior Rabbi of the Emirates?

In 2010, I led a Sephardic heritage trip to Spain and met a businessman who had been doing business with the Gulf region for decades. He was fascinated to find a Lebanese born, Arabic-speaking Jew, who understands the region, culture, traditions, Islam and the Koran. We developed a strong friendship and he introduced me to government officials and businessmen from the Emirates who would periodically come to New York.

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Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie

In 2019, this same person brought a sefer Torah, a Middle Eastern upright one with a beautiful gold box, to the small Jewish community in Dubai. He dedicated it to the memory of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the father of the nation. He asked me to join as a Sephardic Rabbi and a sofer, and I readily agreed.

While there, I was the scholar in residence and met the community in Dubai. The Crown Prince received us in his palace in Abu Dhabi and was very impressed with the gesture of making the sefer Torah in his father’s honor. After the signing of the Abraham Accords, the UAE government asked the Jewish community to register officially and become the representative Jewish community of the country.

Part of the process involves having a religious leader. Since the government already knew me, I was presented with the position and I accepted. I felt that it was a historic and important moment and thought it was a challenge that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is putting me to. I was the right person in the right place at the right time.

Are other religious communities typically registered and what does it entail?

Yes, there are registered Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist communities. It basically gives the Jewish community recognition from the government as the official representative of that faith in the country. The government also gives them land to build a synagogue and recognizes the religious autonomy of the community, such as having batei din. This official recognition of other faiths goes back in Arab and Muslim countries since Islam became a religion.

Can you describe the community and what your religious responsibilities and goals are toward it?

It is a small, beautiful community, made up of Jews from all over the world — from the U.S., Europe, South Africa. Most were there for business and some were actually raised there by their families.

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Rabbi Abadie (C) affixing a mezuzah at the Israeli Diamond Bursa in Dubai with Alex Peterfreund (L) and the head of the Bursa, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem (R).

I was brought to develop and build the Jewish community. In my life I have done so in several places and baruch Hashem those communities have grown and become very important communities. The work is basically from bottom up. We have to establish foundational institutions of the Jewish community — a synagogue, mikveh, school, chevrah kaddisha.

I’m like the Jewish ambassador. I have a great responsibility on my shoulders to make a kiddush Hashem and create more bridges of communication between Jews and Emirates and Gulf Arabs. For 73 years, the Arab society has only heard negative things about Israel and the Jews. We’re trying to correct all of that.

Do you ever feel threatened, living as an openly religious Jew?

I feel very secure. I walk the streets with my kippah and have never seen a bad look or heard a bad word. The opposite — I feel very welcome. Some people say Shalom. Some want to take pictures with me.

The government of the UAE is very clear and adamant about their policy of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It’s under law. When I first arrived, I had a meeting with the Ministry of Security and asked whether I need a security detail. They asked whether I was afraid of something or if anyone threatened me. I said, “No, but I am here wearing my kippah and wondering if I can be a target.” They said they can gladly give me one but don’t think I need one. “Let me just assure you,” a minister said, “that from the moment you got off the plane you have been protected and we are protecting you every day.”

We recently saw Israeli Arabs turn on their Jewish neighbors. Do you ever feel any anti-Zionist or antisemitic sentiments and fear that while they treat you well, they might harbor resentment toward you?

During the time of the war in Gaza I received a lot of messages of support and prayers for peace from many Arab friends. Not a single one sent me a negative message. Could it be that everyone loves us? No. But that’s OK. You can have 10 million people living there, and not everyone agrees with every policy. However, everyone agrees that there has to be respect.

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A Chanukah celebration with the Jewish community and some Emirati guests.

Would you compare the relationship between the UAE and Israel to the relationship with Israel and her peace partners of Egypt and Jordan?

No, the peace with Egypt and Jordan is between governments, not between nations or people. It’s in the interest of the governments of Egypt and Jordan to make peace with Israel, but those governments don’t infuse a sense of peace and normalization or educate their populations. Their populations remain antagonistic because deep down their governments are not very happy.

It’s different with the UAE. As the Foreign Minister said, “It’s not a peace treaty because we were never at war with Israel. It is a normalization accord.” Which means it’s normal to have relations with a neighboring country that lives in the region. That’s a completely different approach. They have changed their schoolbooks about the narrative, publicly display the Israeli flag, label all Israeli products as such in supermarkets, and have written articles in favor of normalization. They have used their power to create an environment of tolerance and respect for each other’s religion and national entity.

The normalization seems predicated on a shared enmity toward Iran and prospects of financial and military cooperation. Would you consider this to be “ahavah she’tluyah b’davar” that might not be sustainable if the conditions are threatened?

No, not to the full extent of that meaning. No country will or should do anything that goes against its own interest. However, I think this normalization isn’t based strictly on the country’s interests but on a concept that Sheikh Zayed infused in his family and country when he founded it — that we are to live and let live.

Yes, Iran is threatening them but that’s not the impetus for this relationship. They realize that they have disagreements with Israel like they have with any other country but that doesn’t mean they should be enemies.

Some have privately told me that for the last 73 years they were fed this old narrative that Israel is our enemy and took the land of Palestinian Arabs. They asked, “Why are we enemies of Israel? What did Israel do to us?” Now they are discovering the true story and history and want to learn more about Israel, Jews and Judaism.

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L-R: Dr. Majid Al Sarrah, head of Sharaka, an Israeli–Emirati friendship organization in the UAE; Rabbi Abadie; social-meida influencer Hassan Sajuani

How has it opened doors in terms of financial opportunities for Israel and other Jews?

There have been so many MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) signed and business deals made with the Israeli government and private individuals. In the six to seven months that I’ve been here, over 120,000 Israelis and Jews have come. Many came as tourists, but many came to do business, create business opportunities and partner with Emirates. Both the Emirates and Israel are investing in major projects in each other’s countries. Those floodgates have opened and will continue to open.

Lapid’s recent visit to the UAE has been interpreted as an effort to jump-start a process that seems to have stalled this past year, with less trade and opportunities realized than expected. Can we blame it on COVID or political upheaval in Israel?

I think big projects didn’t stall but slowed down. However, private business ventures between Israelis and Emirates have continued throughout the corona era. Definitely COVID slowed down tourism and bilateral deals, but I think the limiting step was the political upheaval in Israel. That held things back more than anything else. The UAE didn’t know who they are dealing with. Prime Minister Netanyahu was scheduled to visit four times and they were all canceled. The situation in Israel was not very clear.

The success of the Abraham Accords was largely due to President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu. How does the Biden administration and the new coalition in Israel affect it?

There are two philosophies about that. One philosophy is that it might slow things down because they don’t know where the U.S. is going and they want to do things diplomatically. With President Trump, there was encouraging and pushing and convincing.

The other philosophy is the opposite — it holds that the UAE might not get much support from the Biden administration, so the UAE and Israel only have each other to rely on. I think the reality of the relationship lies somewhere in between. The relationship is strong and will definitely continue because it’s not based on one single issue but on an approach of coexistence and tolerance. Having a friendly neighbor is in the interests of both nations and the region.

Other than business, what incentive would a Jew have to move to the UAE?

I’m not here to encourage people to come to the UAE instead of Israel, but there will be people who may not be ready to move to Israel for whatever reason and will choose the UAE. I believe the Jewish community will grow, maybe into the thousands, in the Emirates and maybe in the entire region, including Bahrain and eventually some other countries.

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With His Highness Crown Prince of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L), Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces of the UAE. (Photo copyright Religion Media Company)

I think there are four types of populations that will come to the UAE, looking for different services – tefillot, kashrut, mikveh use, etc. First, there are Jewish tourists. Second are business tourists who might come several times a year and stay for several weeks, becoming semi-members of the Jewish community. The third group are businessmen looking to establish a company in the country because there’s no corporate or income tax. They may end up staying up to six months in a year, become part of the community and increase its ranks. Lastly, there are those who are running away from antisemitism and may choose to come to an Arab country that is tolerant, especially Jews with backgrounds from North Africa or the Middle East.

On a more spiritual and esoteric note, the UAE provides ancient traditional values which are very much akin to Judaism — monotheism, respect of elders and parents, respect for private property, an emphasis on societal rights over individual rights. All things that the West went wrong in during the last few years. I believe that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants Jews, especially Western Jews, to suffuse themselves with those values they have unfortunately lost in the last century.

Also, as we have emunah in bi’at Moshiach, in which Moshiach ben David will be the leader, we have to get used to a monarchy, and the West does not provide that at all. In fact, we have been so drunk with the idea of democracy — one person, one vote — and we know that it can result in a tyranny of the majority or even the minority. I think Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants to ready us to be able to accept and live in a benevolent monarchy. Maybe to get us ready for the atid hakerovah and the Geulah Sheleimah.

You recently attended the exhibit “We Remember” at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai, which showcases firsthand testimonies of Holocaust survivors and is the first-ever Holocaust memorial to open in the Middle East. Can you explain the significance of this event in a region that is little versed in the Holocaust?

The Holocaust was never spoken about in the region before two years ago. Of course, there were many Holocaust deniers, chief among them Iran and its leadership. Many Arab countries kind of glossed over it or said it was exaggerated. It changed a year and a half ago when Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, made the trip to Auschwitz with a delegation of imams from all over the region.

That led to a recognition of the Holocaust. It was spoken about in the Arab countries, where previously the masses had no idea about it. It affected them very sincerely. They want to know more about the tragedy, commemorate it and share the pain. That was the impetus for this commemoration.

What future opportunities does this present?

They are ready for any projects we will bring. I already discussed with the museum head about exhibiting the culture of Jews who lived in the Middle East, North Africa and Arab countries. He thought it was a great idea.

Only 70 years ago, over 1 million Jews living in Arab countries suffered persecution, imprisonment, expulsion and killing due to the establishment of the State of Israel. Ten Arab countries, namely Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, persecuted their Jews and ultimately expelled them. It was an “ethnic cleansing” of their Jewish communities. That was a churban, a true destruction of Jewish communities that lived in those countries and lands for over 2,000 years and yet another type of the destruction of many Batei Mikdash Me’at.

That story has also not been taught because of the animosity of Arabs and their leaders against Israel in many countries. They kind of erased that in their history books. Now they want to return to that and admit that there were Jewish communities in their countries.

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With His Highness Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (R), Foreign Minister of the UAE.

What message would you like to impart to Jews about the UAE?

The message is the same that I received watching the Emirates and the Arab population of that region change the narrative and their impression of Jews and Israel. Some of us may have been raised thinking that Arabs or Islam are our enemies and terrorists, and we need to change that narrative also. Not all Arabs and Muslims are like that. There is a sizable majority, maybe a silent majority, that would like to know more about Jews and establish a connection with the Jewish community.

Once they see what Judaism is, many say, “Wow, we are sister religions.” Will there still be Muslims and Arabs against us? Yes, just like there are Christians and Western countries that are still antisemitic. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is like that or that it’s the policy of every Arab country.

Instead of hearing from the leaders of that “sizable majority,” the loudest voices seem to be gaining traction and aligning themselves with a growing left-wing opposition to Israel and Jews. How realistic is it to overcome this?

Jewish groups from the U.S. asked a high official in the UAE government how he addresses radical Islam and the left wing. He answered, “That’s not a problem in our country. The problem is in your country because you have given them such freedom of expression to do whatever they want and incite hate and violence. You haven’t controlled or stopped them. We don’t have that problem in our country.”

Muslim leaders who oppose Israel do so from either personal interest to remain in power or because they may themselves believe it. So, they need a petach. And the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are the gate that has opened. The UAE jumped in first and then other countries followed. And more are on the waiting list. You just need more courageous leaders to do so. It takes time. Two years ago, you would not have thought that this would be a possibility. Yet a year later, it’s a reality and it’s flourishing. We have to remain optimistic.