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 2020, approximately 200-300 Jews live in the UAE.
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.
The United Arab Emirates consists of seven independently governed territories. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which serves as the capital, is joined by Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. The president in 2020 was Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, is vice president and prime minister of the UAE.
Since the formation of the 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.
In 2008, two Jewish families moved to Dubai from London and found a handful of other Jews – most expatriates in fields such as finance, law, energy, and diamonds – but no organization. The Jews who came earlier stayed in the shadows. A few years later, Jews were celebrating Jewish holidays together and Jews traveling through the country would get together with the residents. In 2019, the small community formed the Jewish Council of Emirates.
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 began traveling to Dubai roughly every other month 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 UAE, 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.”
The community has outgrown the villa and is seeking funding to establish a cultural, religious and business center where all denominations can pray and gather. In February 2019, the government announced construction of the first official synagogue in the country, in Abu Dhabi, with construction scheduled to begin in 2020 as part of the larger Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. Meanwhile, Rabbi Levi Duchman, who is associated with Chabad, established a synagogue in the UAE that does not call itself Chabad.
“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. Another was donated by London’s Marble Arch Synagogue and a third came from Temple Brith Shalom in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“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 after establishing diplomatic relations. “Among other things, this will allow Israelis to visit the UAE and share our daily experience of… tolerance and pluralism that typifies the UAE,” the Jewish Council of the Emirates said in a statement.
Shortly after the Abraham Accords were signed, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod announced plans to work with the local Jewish community to provide Jewish education, preserve Jewish identity, create summer camps and possibly send an emissary to live in Abu Dhabi to help coordinate these efforts.
Canada’s Jewish Ambassador Marcy Grossman said, “It’s a different world,” since the signing of the Abraham Accords. “I was in Dubai last week for the start of Hanukkah… there were three major Hanukkah celebrations to choose from, there was a 12-foot menorah put up in front of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, there was ‘Sevivon’ [the dreidel song] being sung in the streets, there were kippot, there was kosher food — it’s just unbelievable, really.”
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.
The State Department reported, “The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on 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.
In June 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the government has “taken significant, constructive steps to advance the theological basis for Muslim coexistence with adherents of other religions, including but not limited to Christians and Jews.” The ADL specifically cited the government’s training of thousands of Afghan imams on interreligious coexistence and the appointment of the world’s first cabinet-level minister of tolerance.
“It might sound ironic to some people that Jews feel safer in the UAE than they do in places in Europe or North America,” Rabbi Sarna said.
According to Ross Kriel, a lay leader of the community, “The government’s attitude to our community is that they want us to feel comfortable being here, praying here, and doing business here.”
Sources: “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;
Raphael Ahren, “UAE Jewish community celebrates peace with Israel, excited about direct flights,” Times of Israel, (August 13, 2020);
Yoni Weiss, “Report: Yemen’s Remaining Jews to Move to UAE Following Israel Treaty,” Hamodia, (August 16, 2020);
Felice Friedson, “The trailbazing Jews of the UAE: Paving the path toward peace,” Jerusalem Post, (August 26, 2020);
“Jewish Agency to work on aiding community in United Arab Emirates,” Times of Israel, (September 1, 2020);
Amy Spiro, “Canada’s ambassador to the UAE is celebrating Jewish life in the Emirates,” JewishInsider, (December 21, 2020).