The Arab world is receptive to its Jews


THE SLOGAN of the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen is blunt. “Death to Israel, curse on the Jews,” it says in part. So it came as no shock when the group chased Jews out of their control area. What might be surprising is where some of these Jews ended up. Yusuf Hamdi and his extended family were rescued in a mission organized by the organization U.N., America, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2021. Mr. Hamdi and his companions then missed an opportunity to go to Israel and instead became the first Yemeni Jews to settle in Israel UAE.

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the UAE benefits offered: a rent-free villa, a fancy car, and monthly welfare checks. It’s all part of efforts to plant new Jewish communities in the country. The government declared 2019 the year of tolerance and officially recognized the existence of Jews in the country UAE, new kosher restaurants and a Jewish center have emerged. During last year’s Hanukkah festival, the state erected large menorahs in city squares (pictured). There are plans to open a state-funded synagogue later this year. “Jews are back in the Middle East,” says Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi Jew who fled to Britain but was resettled in Dubai last year.

From Morocco to the Gulf, a surprising number of Arab countries are welcoming Jews and embracing their Jewish heritage. The reasons are different. The failure and excesses of Arab nationalism and Islamism have forced many countries to reconsider chauvinist dogmas. Modernizing autocrats have jettisoned communal tropes and are pursuing multicultural agendas. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer seen as a priority in the region. “The Arab world has too many problems to care about Palestine,” says Kamal Alam, an expert on Syria and its Jewish diaspora. “Instead, they reluctantly look to Israel and the Jews as role models for running a prosperous, oil-free country.”

Before the founding of Israel in 1948, there were more Jews in the rest of the Arab world than in Palestine. At least a quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. The same was true of the beauty queen of Iraq in 1947. But after the establishment of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians, the Arab rulers turned on their Jewish subjects. Many were stripped of their citizenship and property. State media and textbooks promoted anti-Semitism, and the sermons of Muslim preachers fanned the flames. The Arab states expelled all but a few thousand non-Israeli Jews from the region.

In recent years, however, the mood has changed drastically. Most Arabs have no memory of the great Arab-Israeli wars of the last century. Softer sentiments have been encouraged by leaders who see the Jewish state as a potential trading partner and ally against Iran, and who seek greater acceptance in the West. The Rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, host multicultural gatherings and often muzzle clerics who step out of line. Sympathetic depictions of Jews have appeared in Arab films and TV shows; Documentaries have explored the region’s Jewish roots. Some Arab universities have opened Jewish history departments. Such is the attitude change when four Arab countries – Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE– agreed to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, there were no major protests.

Saudi Arabia has not made a formal peace with Israel. But the kingdom – once one of the most closed and intolerant countries in the world – now welcomes Jews, even Israelis (if traveling on foreign passports). Hebrew can be heard at fairs and festivals. An Israeli psychic recently performed at a royal party. Anti-Jewish slanders were extracted from Saudi textbooks. To the dismay of some, an Israeli rabbi named Jacob Herzog is a frequent visitor to the capital, Riyadh. He sits in cafes in ultra-Orthodox garb and hands out prayer books. He sometimes posts pictures of himself dancing with vendors in the bazaar. “Jews used to be afraid of calling themselves Jews in the kingdom,” says Herr Herzog, who describes himself as the chief rabbi of Saudi Arabia. “Now we will be embedded.”

This goes hand in hand with Muhammad bin Salman’s drive to attract tourists and investment. The crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has defied the clergy by sponsoring archaeological digs at Jewish sites in hopes of one day attracting Jewish tourists. In November, an Israeli opened Habitas, a luxury hotel in Al Ula, an ancient rock city. Prince Muhammad has located one of his pet projects, a proposed $500 billion high-tech city called Neom, on the kingdom’s northwest coast — to better attract Israeli expertise, his advisers say. “The Saudis are closer to the Jews than they are to the Palestinians and Lebanese,” says Sultan al-Mousa, author of a best-selling Saudi novel about a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.

In Egypt, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s government is renovating Jewish cemeteries and what was once the largest synagogue in the Middle East. This may in part be an attempt to charm America, which is giving Egypt heaps of aid. Elsewhere, the motives are clearer. The blood-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is restoring synagogues and has reached out to the many Syrian Jews in New York by hosting a delegation of them in Damascus. “Syria is working with its Jewish exiles to polish its image as a protector of religious minorities and to connect with communities that could potentially give it political clout in Washington at a time when it has very little of it,” says David Lesch from Trinity University in Texas.

Mizrahi Jews from Israel are also driving change in the region. With Middle Eastern roots, many feel marginalized in Israel, where schools tend to focus on European Jewish history. Large numbers of Mizrahim have gone to Morocco, with some hoping to build a new housing complex for Jews in Marrakesh. Others pack dozens of flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai every week. Those who stay are more open about their heritage. Unlike their grandparents, who secretly listened to Umm Kulthum, an Egyptian diva, the young Mizrahim openly blow Arabic music. In 2015, three sisters of Yemeni descent released Israel’s first Arabic chart-topping song. “The cold is turning into curiosity about the region,” says Liel Maghen, director of the Center for Regional Initiatives, a Jerusalem think tank. “There is an Arabization of Israeli culture.”

Some see the bonhomie cynically. “I’ll lock you up [Palestinians] at checkpoints. And then take a selfie in [Dubai’s] Towers,” sings Noam Shuster-Eliassi, an Israeli comedian, in her satirical song “Dubai, Dubai” (which is in Arabic). Others fear that Jews could be targeted in the event of a popular backlash against the region’s despots. But Morocco’s development suggests that the improvement in relations could be permanent. The kingdom began to stretch out decades ago. Jews of Moroccan origin can reclaim their citizenship. The country has a Jewish museum and a new Jewish study center and has restored dozens of ancient Jewish sites, notes Avraham Moyal, a rabbi of Moroccan descent. “We broke the taboo.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Welcome Back”


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