How interfaith relations will pave the way for an inclusive future in the Middle East
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How interfaith relations will pave the way for an inclusive future in the Middle East

How interfaith relations will pave the way for an inclusive future in the Middle East

Rabbi Marc Schneier has been working tirelessly to champion the cause of interfaith relations and build bridges between the GCC and Israel. And slowly but surely, that journey has fructified

Gulf Business

When I interviewed Rabbi Marc Schneier in December last year, he made a prediction that the rift among the GCC states would be mended very soon. By the next time we spoke, in
March, that prediction had borne fruit with Qatar normalising relations with the other Gulf states.

Resolving conflicts and promoting greater harmony is a subject close to the rabbi’s heart – whether that is across faiths or beyond borders. And that’s a journey he has been on for several years now.

A pioneer in building Jewish-Muslim relations, the rabbi started working on bridging ties between the two faiths way back in 2005. “My sole objective, since 2005, has been to find the path to narrow the divide – the chasm – between 1.6 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews. And thank God it’s been an extraordinary journey. I’m not going to represent that we
have arrived at the final destination of Muslim-Jewish relations, but the good news is that the journey has begun, and we’ve had so many successes along the way,” he says.

A key element of spreading this message has been the book, Sons of Abraham, co-authored by Rabbi Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali, which revolves around a candid conversation on the issues that divide and unite Jews and Muslims. The book, which features a foreword by former US President Bill Clinton, talks about how Rabbi Schneier, who grew up deeply suspicious of Muslims, and Imam Shamsi Ali, who believed that all Jews wanted to destroy Muslims, managed to overcome their prejudices and become friends.

“[The first time] we met I barely looked at him, you know, I had this certain hesitation when it came to Muslims. But we were on the set together [for a TV panel discussion] and then we decided to have lunch. And the rest is history,” the rabbi says.

To further champion the need for interfaith dialogue and greater understanding, the two religious leaders decided to write the book.

“It was very, very important for us to be an author on this subject, to gain greater credibility and legitimacy, and most importantly, to disseminate the message of the book that as the children of Abraham, we share a common fate and how our single destiny must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other. I felt it was very important
to write a book of what would become the definitive text in Muslim-Jewish relations,” the rabbi states.

The rabbi was also a pioneer when it came to developing ties with the GCC region, having established connections with the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia 12 years ago. That led to introductions with the heads of state in Bahrain and Qatar.

“I think my challenge at the time was not Muslim Jewish relations, it was more Gulf-Israel relations. For 12 years, I helped to sensitise Gulf leaders and Muslim faith leaders that Israel for the Jewish people is not a political issue, it’s a religious one. So if you want to have an authentic dialogue with the Jewish people, you can’t ask to bifurcate Israel from Judaism.

“Not everyone necessarily wanted to hear what I was saying, but they did go through a process of acknowledgement. And I think that greatly contributed to the Abraham Accords because, there’s the political platform – and I headed up the interfaith platform – in a region such as the Gulf, which is so steeped in religion, you cannot move this process forward without having the approval and the support of the religious leadership of the region. So I think that in some small way, my contribution to the Abraham Accords was my constant, and very tenacious, promotion of Israel, not as a political issue but as a religious one,” he explains.

While the Abraham Accords, signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel in August last year has already led to several joint projects and collaborations, it has also opened up the GCC to the wider Jewish community worldwide.

Rabbi Marc Schneier recalls how – in what was another historic first – he brought members of his Hampton Synagogue from New York to Bahrain in February 2018 following an invitation from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain to forge better relations between Muslims and Jews. The trip marked the first ever Jewish congregational mission
to a GCC state.

The visit proved to be ‘overwhelming’ for his congregation, the rabbi says, and he is now keen to bring them again to other parts of the GCC, once the Covid-19 crisis passes.

“There are great opportunities, and the objective is clear – we will use the Hampton synagogue as a springboard to challenge other Jewish congregations to follow suit and to look to the Gulf as a prime destination, particularly before they go to Israel,” he says, adding there is already “tremendous interest” among other congregations.

“We’ve already established the plan and the structure for these trips. The problem is that Americans are still not travelling because of Covid-19. I think once everything passes, the sky is the limit in terms of Jewish travel,” he adds.

The UAE has seen close to 150,000 Israeli visitors since the Accords were signed last year, which reflects the natural bonding between the two peoples.

“People have asked me, ‘Why do you say it’s like a love-fest in Dubai, between the Israelis and the Emiratis?’ My feeling is that when it comes to Muslim-Jewish relations, there is a unique bond, there’s a familial chord, we’re family. So I don’t necessarily see hundreds and thousands of Jews coming to the Gulf as something new, as much as it’s a reunification
of family. There are no two other faith communities in the world that can point to the commonality that Muslims and Jews share. And I think that’s the underlying foundation that has led to a very natural love-fest that we are now witnessing in Dubai.”

Looking ahead, I ask him to make his next prediction.

“My prediction is that the other Gulf states, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Omanis – even the Kuwaitis – will normalise ties with Israel. But the caveat will be that there will be some Israeli-Palestinian engagement working towards a permanent solution to the conflict. And I think that that will be the great contribution of US President Joe Biden, because he has the sensitivity and the empathy. He will make Israeli-Palestinian engagement a priority,” he states.

“So I think that we will now see even more of the Gulf states joining the very bold and courageous moves made by the UAE and Bahrain. And then we’ll have the domino effect across the entire region.”

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