Rabbi David Rosen explores the interfaith context of the Israel-UAE deal

September 11, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) has hosted a webinar with Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Director of International Interreligious Affairs and a leading global figure in inter-faith dialogue with the Christian and Muslim world.

Rabbi David Rosen

Rabbi Rosen discussed the value of interfaith dialogue in general and his involvement in such dialogue in the Middle East over the years, especially in the context of the normalisation deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, the so-called Abraham Accord.

“What led to the new era of interfaith engagement coming out of the Arab-Muslim world was to a large degree motivated by the reaction to… the horror of September 11, 2001, and the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, first and foremost, to those regimes,” Rosen says of the Gulf monarchies. “They understood that there within this development of Islamic radicalism and extremism, there was above all an ideological and educational challenge.”

“There is also of course within the Arab states an increasing understanding of Israel’s own strategic value,” Rosen adds, especially given the fear of Iran. Even prior to the historic UAE-Israel agreement for formal normalisation, the Arab states wished to conduct under-the-table relations and “Interfaith relations provides… the soft avenue in which you can engage without necessarily having to pay any price,” Rabbi Rosen said.

“The UAE actually came in on the interfaith scene a little later than Saudi Arabia, but it came in later but much more dramatically and with much greater intensity,” Rosen explained, citing several UAE interfaith initiatives. “The fact that… the UAE were so happy about [the Abraham Accord] is again a testimony to the fact that they see the interfaith dimension as the umbrella within which the diplomatic engagement can take place,” Rosen explains.

As part of this interfaith outreach, the Jewish community in the UAE has come out of the shadows and a large synagogue is being built, alongside a mosque and a church, as part of an ‘Abrahamic Family House’ complex in Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia’s interfaith initiatives, culminating in the establishment of KAICIID (King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) Dialogue Centre in Europe, are also extremely important, Rosen noted. KAICIID facilitated meetings between Jewish and Muslim leaders who otherwise could never have met, including Rosen’s own with the then Saudi King Abdullah, a historic first for an Israeli Jewish rabbi, where the King emphasised the importance of interfaith relations and promoting tolerant Islam and peace.

It was also through KAICIID that Rabbi Rosen met the Secretary-general of the Muslim World League, Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa. “The Muslim World League is arguably the most powerful Muslim organisation in the world,” Rosen says.  The organisation has done a complete about-face, once serving as a Saudi mechanism for promoting global Islamic fundamentalism, Rosen explained, but  “Al-Issa has brought in a totally fresh wind.”

“Aside from reorientating the Muslim World League itself and its own particular activities, one of his most major and significant activities has been to reach out to the Jewish community.” This includes not only visiting synagogues throughout Europe and the US and participating in conferences with Jewish leaders, but also visiting Auschwitz with AJC last year. “He has been very forthright in condemning Holocaust denial,” Rabbi Rosen said.

Muslim antisemitism and ingrained negative stereotypes towards Jews and Israel, however, are going to take time to change. “We’re at the beginning of this process, right at the beginning of it, and it’s going to take a long time before we have reached a satisfactory stage,” Rosen says.

On the other hand, he doesn’t see anything inherent in Islam that would stop an eventual moderation of the Muslim world towards Jews. “Islam as a religion more easily accommodate multicultural and religious diversity” than Christianity, Rosen asserts, and if the Christian world could come to a rapprochement with the Jewish world, so can Islam in the end. “I find that the problem is more political, and above all is more sociological and cultural.”

Whether the UAE normalisation with Israel will start a domino effect of Arab and Muslim normalisation will depend on movement on the Palestinian front, Rosen argues. “We have to appreciate the symbolism that the Palestinian issue still has within the Arab world. Whether it’s real or perceived doesn’t matter.” Even getting back to the table may be enough, says Rosen. “When Saud Arabia – I don’t say if – when Saudi Arabia establishes diplomatic relations with Israel, that will be… the climax of the transformation, but I don’t see it coming immediately.”

As for the reaction of other Islamic countries, “Indonesia and the rest of the Muslim world still respects the fact that the Arab world is the heartland of Islam and that on issues that relate especially to the relationship with the state of Israel, they would not want to be too far ahead of the pack,” although Rosen hopes the UAE’s recent steps could galvanise Indonesia and others to begin the process of establishing diplomatic relations. “Indonesia is a classic example of an appreciation of where the interfaith dimension is really important for nurturing the relationship and facilitating the possibility of diplomatic advances at a later stage.”

He also hopes interfaith relations could contribute to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the end. “The more we have a better understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities, the more possible it is for us to be able to advance political peace and reconciliation.”

Rosen’s message to those Jews excited to visit the UAE is that he felt comfortable walking around in a kippa there. “Tourism,” he says, “is going to be one of the most important avenues of breaking down these psychological barriers and promoting new perceptions of one another,” he said.


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