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United Arab Emirates Virtual Jewish History Tour

Over the millennia of Jewish history in the Middle East and in the history of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, there are recorded meetings with Jewish communities in areas that are today in the geographic territories of the United Arab Emirates. As of 2019, fewer than 100 Jews live in the UAE.

Early History
Modern History
Attitudes Toward Jews
Israel-UAE Relations

Early History

A historical journey to visit far-flung Jewish communities was undertaken by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela from 1165 to 1173, which crossed some of the areas that are today in the United Arab Emirates and were previously controlled by the Persians. He reported that he found a Jewish community in “Kis,” which is located in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE.

Modern History

Since the formation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, a small Jewish community has lived in the UAE. The community includes Jews who call the UAE home and those who moved to there because they are involved in business and commerce in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance officially recognized the local Jewish population in February 2019.

In May 2019, an agreement was reached for Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the New York University chaplain, to be the first chief rabbi of the Jewish community of the United Arab Emirates. The position is unpaid, and Sarna will travel four times a year to Dubai to lead services during holidays.

After meeting for years in one another’s homes, Dubai’s Jews rented a villa in a quiet residential neighborhood three years ago for services. Though information about the synagogue was disclosed in the media for the first time in December 2018, members of the community still insisted its location be kept secret and some asked that their names not be published.

The synagogue includes a kosher kitchen, several guest bedrooms, and a number of residents who observe the Shabbat. Services, which are conducted according to the Orthodox liturgy, include a benediction for the rulers of the UAE: “Bless and protect, guard and assist, exalt, magnify, and uplift the president of the U.A.E., Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, and his deputy, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, and all the rulers of the other emirates and their crown princes.”

“We’ve come a long way since I started traveling to Dubai 30 years ago and I was told to try to avoid using my last name because it sounded too Jewish,” said Eli Epstein, a New Yorker who helped build the synagogue and donated a Torah scroll.

“What we see is the first emergence of the first new Jewish community emerging in the Arab world for centuries,” said Sarna, who says there are hundreds of Jews in the UAE from all over the world to take advantage of employment opportunities.

He told Haaretz, that he began coming to the UAE eight years earlier. “When it was suggested in 2010 that I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students, I said I’ll go only if it’s safe enough for me to go dressed the way I dress. They said come, and I walk around there with a kippa and tzitzit. I’ve gone every year for the past eight years twice a year exactly as I am now.”

NYU has also created the Jewish Gulf Alliance, which “envisions a world where the Jewish People and the Arab world re-engage in a mutually enriching encounter, dismantling stereotypes and shedding fears produced by decades of conflict.” Its mission is to “catalyze cultural and religious exchanges between the global Jewish community and the United Arab Emirates.”

The Jewish community hopes that life will continue to improve as the UAE more openly engages with Israel, which has occurred in large measure because of the mutual concern about the threat posed to both by Iran.

Attitudes Toward Jews

Anti-Semitic editorials, op-eds and cartoons have appeared in the past in the English and Arabic-language electronic and print media.

In 1999, the British University of Lincolnshire and Humberside banned books by Jews, as well as those that mention Jews in their bibliographies to accommodate “local political, religious or moral publishing laws.”

In July 2000, the Harvard Divinity School accepted $2.5 million from the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In 2002, the Zayed Center published a report on the Holocaust that said Zionists “were the people who killed the Jews in Europe.” This led to an uproar that the money be returned and that the center be closed. In August, the UAE government closed the Zayed Center because its activities “starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance advocated by the president.”

More recently, the UAE has sought to project an image of openness, appointing a minister of tolerance and sponsoring a World Tolerance Summit in 2018 attended by representatives from various religions, including Judaism.

In 2019, when Pope Francis became the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula, the government published a book, Celebrating Tolerance, which mentions all of the UAE’s religions – Muslims, Armenians, Buddhists, Copts, Hindus and Jews.

Israel-UAE Relations

Source: “History of the Jews in the United Arab Emirates,” Wikipedia;
“British school bans books by Jews from its campus in the Persian Gulf,” JTA, (March 28, 1999);
Jonathan Ferziger and Alisa Odenheimer, “As the Gulf Warms Up to Israel, a Synagogue Grows in Dubai,” Bloomberg Businessweek, (December 5, 2018);
Miriam Herschlag, “For the first time, Dubai’s Jewish community steps hesitantly out of the shadows,” Times of Israel,(December 5, 2018).
“First Jewish Synagogue in The United Arab Emirates,” Jerusalem Online, (December 6, 2018);
Itamar Eichner, “The Jews of Dubai are on the map,” Ynet, (February 5, 2019).
Ron Kampeas, “NYU chaplain to be first chief rabbi of the United Arab Emirates Jewish community,” JTA, (May 14, 2019); Haaretz, (May 15, 2019).
“Jewish Gulf Alliance,” NYU Bronfman Center.