Here’s what happened to a rabbi in Qatar

As I flew in, Hamas flew out...


Qatar fans during the World Cup Qatar in 2022 at Al Janoub Stadium (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

May 08, 2024 15:57

It was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I boarded a Qatar Airways flight to Doha this week. A Jew travelling to an Arab country is always a little conscious that the environment might not be the most friendly - especially when it is one of the more religiously strict.

As a general rule of thumb, the more religious a country, the more right-wing it is politically and the more anti-Israel, too. Qatar is not Iran and does have some links with Israel, but you tend not to see the Israeli flag flying alongside those of other nations at the airport.

Even more significantly, as I flew in senior delegates of Hamas flew out after yet another round of failed peace talks.

This backdrop coloured what might have otherwise been a very different experience. I was there for an inter-faith conference on the family: the challenges it faces in today’s world and what role religion can play in enhancing it.

Although there were a number of Jews and Christians among the 450 participants, the majority were from other Muslim countries. It meant there was no avoiding what was happening in Gaza.

Just as synagogues here in the UK constantly mention the hostages at services and individual Jews wear the identity tags of those still missing, so the suffering of Gazans is uppermost in the minds of most Muslims.

A large proportion of speakers introduced their remarks by acknowledging the destruction of family life for Gazans and calling on everyone present to remember their plight.

If you take seriously the idea that we are all the children of God, that was easy to go along with. Much harder was the fact that such appeals were usually accompanied by severe condemnation of Israel, with references to "Zionist aggression" or "Israel’s brutal atrocities" or "Jewish war crimes against children". It did not make pleasant listening.

Most cutting was the speaker who asked, "How can a people who have experienced the Holocaust in recent history now cause one themselves?". Hurtful as this may be to Jewish ears, this is the perspective of many Muslims, and the question was greeted with spontaneous applause.

Even more challenging was when, in a last-minute addition to the programme, a ten year old child from Gaza, who had been flown in for the conference, was asked to share his experiences. He spoke about his family being displaced, split up and losing several members. Whatever the larger political picture, it was impossible not to regret the actions that had led to his particular tale.

Within an hour of my arrival I decided to wear a kippah throughout the two-day conference, something I do not normally do in England, except at services. I was effectively putting on a “Jew-badge” and wanted to make it obvious to everyone that I was Jewish, not hiding it, and ready to answer any questions or accusations.

This was not the reason for my attendance, which was my years of involvement with mixed-faith families, but it took over. I wanted to share the Jewish view of October 7 and, without justifying every single aspect of it, explain why Israel has responded in the way it has.

It worked, in that more people approached me than might otherwise have done. Conversations were not always easy, but they were civilised. I hope at least those I spoke to can now understand Israel's perspective and motive, even if they still hate the decisions and the result.

Dr Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue

May 08, 2024 15:57

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