The UAE - 'Many Jews call this place home'

The Israel-UAE accords, signed in the summer, reflect a bigger picture of Islamic tolerance, says the leader of the Gulf Jewish community


The president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, Ross Kriel, has spoken of his hopes for the future of the Jewish community — while at the same time trying to retain the fresh optimism which led to its creation in the last decade.

Speaking to a Limmud audience of more than 250 people, Mr Kriel, originally from Johannesburg, praised the tradition of Islamic tolerance in the United Arab Emirates which had permeated the leadership of the country — to the benefit of its Jewish and other minorities.

“It allowed us to participate with the highest level [of government]”, he said.

All the Dubai Jews are ex-pats, from numerous different countries. As Mr Kriel explained, while once it made the community very transitory, today “it is not so transitory as you might think. Certainly the leaders of the Jewish community have no intention of leaving.

“We feel that we are citizens of the UAE, even if we don’t yet have passports”. And that, too, may change; he said that there is a move to allow non-Emiratis to apply for citizenship. “Many Jews call this place home”, he declared.

Mr Kriel was a founding member of the community, which began in 2010. “Our first phase was really finding each other, asking, is there anyone else Jewish?”

The expression then was “to bagel someone” — in other words to use words which might indicate to someone that the speaker was Jewish. “And our first question to them was always, do you know we have a place where you can come?” This was the Dubai house known as The Villa, where for a number of years small services were held in relative secret as the community grew.

Jessica Katz spent last year as the Ralph Goldman Fellow with JDC Entwine, the youth engagement arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Service. She travelled to 14 countries and then spent three months living in Dubai, helping to set up programming for the emerging community.

“It was an incredible opportunity to work with the Jewish community in its formative stages,” she said. She had helped bring PJ Library facilities, the Jewish book club for children, to the UAE during her stay.

Mr Kriel said the community was now at a stage where “we are normalising vis-a-vis the Jewish world, while wanting to hold on to what makes us unique”. The ex-pats, he said, formed “the soup of the Jewish world”.

He believed that the Abraham Accords, formalising relations between Israel and the UAE and Israel and Bahrain, were “a facet of the bigger concept of Islamic tolerance”.

In the pipeline, he said, would be a Jewish school, a mikveh, synagogues, a kosher restaurant and places of learning. “But we will miss an extremely valuable opportunity if we do just that. We don’t want merely to re-create what has happened in other communities.

"This is an invitation to find creative ways of joining a community, something which won’t happen again in a long time”.

Jessica Katz, speaking from her home community of Detroit, praised the commitment she had found in Dubai. She said: “People show up for each other there. What ties everyone together, whatever background they come from, Orthodox, Reform, Masorti, Sephardi, Ashkenazi — is that they are Jewish, and it is a beautiful thing to see. Other communities [around the world] could learn from this attitude of inclusiveness”.

The meeting was moderated from Jaffa, Israel, by Shaun Hoffman, deputy director of JDC Entwine.

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