Orthodox Jews Are Visiting UAE In Waves After Israeli-Emirati Peace Deal

Dec 27, 2020
Originally published on December 27, 2020 12:54 pm

A hushed Jewish community in Dubai has emerged into the open after the Israeli-Emirati peace deal. Now they're hosting an unlikely rush of Orthodox Jews to the Gulf Arab city.

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A Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates has come out of the shadows after that country opened diplomatic relations with Israel. As NPR's Daniel Estrin reports, the community has scrambled to accommodate a rush of Israeli Orthodox Jews visiting the UAE.

LEVI DUCHMAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Rabbi Levi Duchman lights the Hanukkah candles in a hotel ballroom with Orthodox Jewish tourists visiting Dubai for the first time. One of them approaches the rabbi.

L DUCHMAN: Hi. How are you, (speaking Hebrew)?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hebrew). Hebrew or English?

L DUCHMAN: English.

ESTRIN: He's got a religious query about Starbucks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Starbucks here...

L DUCHMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My father's telling me it's a bit of a problem because of the camel milk.

ESTRIN: Camel milk products are sold in Dubai. Camel milk is not kosher. He's wondering if Starbucks coffee is kosher.

L DUCHMAN: I think it's fine, but you have to find out.

ESTRIN: Rabbi Duchman is from New York, already living in the country with the Chabad outreach movement.

L DUCHMAN: I moved to the United Arab Emirates about six years ago to help build the Jewish community here.

ESTRIN: Jewish expats living and working here hold prayers in unmarked Dubai villas. They keep a low profile for their security. Ever since the UAE opened formal ties with Israel, they've been overwhelmed.

L DUCHMAN: There's been thousands of Israelis, American Jews, European Jews coming to visit the UAE.

ESTRIN: Fifteen nonstop daily flights brought tens of thousands of Israelis this month to Dubai. Many just went to hold events prohibited under Israel's COVID rules, like concerts and weddings. Some Israelis have returned with the virus, but for weeks, Israel allowed travel without quarantines to not anger their new friend the UAE. Israelis have enjoyed Dubai's luxuries.

MENDEL DUCHMAN: This is the first kosher restaurant here in the UAE.

ESTRIN: Rabbi Duchman's brother Mendel shows me around the sleek restaurant at the foot of the world's tallest building.

M DUCHMAN: And now we see tens and tens of guests a day, over 150 a night.

ESTRIN: For many ultra-Orthodox Jews, it's their first visit to an Arab country to vacation or to explore business opportunities, like starting a kosher hotel or marketing upscale Orthodox women's clothing to local Muslim clientele. Religious Jewish visitors say Emiratis identify them by their religious dress. Tehila Ohana from Israel.

TEHILA OHANA: And one woman came to us and say, hello, I'm so happy you're here. Please come more. Come again. I love you. And I don't know where - I never met her, and I will never meet her again.

ESTRIN: The peace deal is very new and controversial. Many Arabs in the region think it's unfair to reward Israel while Palestinians don't have independence. Some Israelis refuse to visit the UAE because of its treatment of foreign laborers and lack of LGBT rights. Most Emiratis in the streets didn't want to speak on tape, but the UAE ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, says the warm welcome shouldn't be a surprise.

YOUSEF AL-OTAIBA: The UAE now is being seen through a lens that is welcoming Jewish visitors and Jewish tourists and Israeli tourists. But we were always open. We were always tolerant.

ESTRIN: The UAE has spent years seeking to improve its image in the U.S. following 9/11. Two of the hijackers were Emirati. The outreach included quietly hosting delegations of American Jewish community leaders for years leading up to the new deal with Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

ESTRIN: This Hanukkah, there was a nightly concert and candle lighting in central Dubai. Authorities eventually put an end to them for COVID safety. Suri Fulda, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, told me what it felt like being there.

SURI FULDA: They lit the candles the first night of Hanukkah. It was a miracle. The Muslim world is accepting us. And I thought it was something to be very, very proud of as a Jew.

ESTRIN: She admits Dubai is like a cruise ship on land filled with foreigners. She's barely met Emiratis. It's far from typical of the Muslim world, but she hopes to visit other countries making peace with Israel. Bahrain is on her bucket list.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.