Jews plant date palms in Medina for first time in 1400 years

British philanthropist Rick Sopher leads interfaith delegation on historic visit


Jews have planted date palms in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina for the first time in 1,400 years as part of an interfaith trip to the region.

The historic event took place thanks to the hospitality of a private landowner who invited the participants to add to his own palms as a gesture of friendship.

Led by Rick Sopher, 63, a banker and philanthropist from London, the interfaith group visited both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, exploring the recent changes in attitude towards reconciliation and friendship among the three Abrahamic faiths. Delegates from Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds travelled together from the UK to learn about the history, religion and culture of the destination countries through interaction with local faith leaders, institutions, and communities.

The diverse group included prominent businessmen and philanthropists as well as a professor of history and other researchers from Cambridge University.

Following the Saudi royal purge in 2017 and the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, attitudes in both countries have evolved, allowing groups including Jews to visit more freely and develop interfaith harmony through religious cooperation and discussion.

Each participant was invited to plant a sapling of an ajwa date tree, the speciality type of date that is only grown in Medina and is specifically mentioned in the Hadith, a record of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Speaking at the tree-planting event, Sopher said: “If anyone had told me five or even ten years ago that I would be able to come to Saudi Arabia, everybody knowing that I am Jewish, also with friends, also Jewish, I would hardly have believed them. But not just to come to Saudi Arabia but to be received in such a friendly, hospitable way, is really something marvellous.

"Not just Saudi Arabia but to come to Al Madinah Al Munawwarah, the enchanting, enlightened city, is something absolutely marvellous.

“I hope that this wonderful moment is going to lead to more wonderful moments of fraternity and being together, and coexistence and peaceful harmony. It’s really a heartwarming occasion.”

Though a ban on non-Muslims entering Medina was only lifted five years ago, Sopher’s group were not the first Jews to plant trees in the city. When Muhammad arrived in Medina from Mecca in 620 CE a substantial part of the inhabitants of the city were from three Jewish tribes, and several Jewish residents owned date-tree orchards. Mukhairik, for example, was a wealthy Jew who died fighting alongside Muhammad and whose substantial date farms and properties were left in his will to the Prophet. According to Islamic history, one of the Jewish tribes did not honour the pact of collective defence contained in the Constitution of Medina and they, and eventually all Jewish life in that part of Arabia, were extinguished.

“An invitation to plant a palm tree in the place where Jews had once looked after them had a special resonance. I was effectively the first Jewish person to plant a date tree in Medina for 1,400 years,” Sopher told the JC.

The group also met various Koranic scholars, artists and others helping to advance new ideas and tolerance in the region, including the revered Muslim imams Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah in the UAE and Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa of Saudi Arabia, who advocate a more moderate Islam at peace with other religions. They also met the Catholic bishop and rabbis of the UAE.

The delegates visited the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, the newly-opened interfaith complex which comprises three equally-sized prayer buildings: a synagogue, a church and a mosque. Sopher led the first interfaith discussion held at the compound, where in a packed reception room after Shabbat lunch they discussed how the Koran might connect with or comment on the contents of the Parashah of that week.

Sopher is the chairman of the Sephardi Centre in London, and traces his own family back to Iraq. “In my previous visits to Saudi on business, I did not advertise my Jewish religion,” he said.

“Now, Saudis were engaging openly with the Jewish people in our group and the warmth of their reception was extraordinary.”

The trip ended days before the Chinese brokered a Saudi Arabia-Iran detente, which is now testing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since then, some Jews invited to a Saudi tourism conference last week had their visas cancelled at the last moment.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive