Montreal-born UAE Chief Rabbi Expects Jewish Influx to Gulf State

Nov. 30, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jews from around the world are migrating to the United Arab Emirates and will increasingly make their home there with the normalization of relations between that Gulf state and Israel, says the community’s Montreal-born chief rabbi.

“I expect the number to balloon dramatically and quickly,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna in a webinar hosted by McGill Hillel and Princeton Hillel on Nov. 22.

Rabbi Sarna was appointed chief rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates after it was established early last year, and said to be the first organized Jewish community in the Arabian peninsula in centuries.

The council is the official representative to the UAE government, responsible for the community’s religious and educational needs.

Rabbi Sarna, 42, has been a chaplain at New York University and executive director of its Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life for 18 years. Since 2006, he’s had a high profile in interfaith activity, especially with Muslims. He helped establish an NYU campus in Abu Dhabi 10 years ago along with NYU Muslim chaplain, Imam Khalid Latif.

Rabbi Sarna

Rabbi Sarna returned every year to interview high schools students from abroad for the four-year undergraduate program. His role grew into “negotiating mutual respect” between “the Arab host culture” and the Western educational institution, a quasi-diplomatic role that earned him the regime’s trust.

As chief rabbi, he does not live in the UAE but visits regularly, pandemic restrictions permitting. The Jewish Council, based in Dubai, has over 100 active members. Rabbi Sarna estimates about 1,000 Jews live throughout the country today.

They come from North America, South America, Europe, Israel and elsewhere, he said.

“They are moving there for, number one, economic opportunity and, number two, for safety, because of antisemitism in Western democracies…And they are establishing themselves there, marrying, raising families. They see a future in an Arab country,” he said.

They have resident status that allows them to work, but gaining citizenship is more difficult, he said.

A temporary resident active in the Council is Canada’s Ambassador to the UAE, Marcy Grossman, a Montreal native like Rabbi Sarna, appointed in October 2019.

Rabbi Sarna said the distinctive Emirati culture explains why Jews would choose to settle and feel welcome in the UAE.

“Deep in the Emirati DNA is a kind of radical hospitality…The Emiratis were a Bedouin people. They knew about desert living and opened the proverbial tent to those who wanted to be with them. You see the modern manifestation of that in the airports, the hotels.”

It wasn’t always that way, he acknowledges. Ten years ago, the few Jews living there were a “private community,” if not exactly a clandestine one, he said. They would meet homes for prayer in Dubai and instruct their children not to tell classmates they were Jewish.

“All that changed overnight on Aug. 13, 2020,” Rabbi Sarna said, with the Abraham Accords signed by Israel, the UAE and the United States. “People stepped out of the shadows.”

But change was underway before that. The UAE declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance. It invited Pope Francis to the country and opened a multi-faith complex containing a mosque, church and synagogue, he noted.

Rabbi Sarna celebrated this Rosh Hashanah with the community at the spectacular Atlantis, The Palm resort in Dubai. He hopes to return at Hanukkah and host a party inviting the diplomatic corps as well.

In October Lebanese-born Elie Abadie became the Jewish Council’s in-resident rabbi, arriving from New York. The Council is now applying for World Jewish Congress affiliation.

“Rabbi Abadie and I are sharing spiritual and diplomatic roles,” Rabbi Sarna explained. “We have different backgrounds – Ashkenazi and Sephardi – and connect to different people, both locally and internationally.”

Of the accords, Rabbi Sarna commented, “the UAE took the great leap to full normalization, not incremental and with no conditions. By all accounts, this will be a very warm peace.”

Rabbi Sarna thinks a “demystification” of Israel has taken place among the Emirati people. “My sense is that there has been a normalization of disagreement…Israel is now seen like other countries. They may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but that does not mean they should not have diplomatic relations.”

After the pandemic, Rabbi Sarna expects that hundreds of thousands of Israelis will annually flock to the UAE, which has directed its hotels to provide kosher food. He hopes that Israelis will respect the culture of the country and not regard it as their “playground.”

Rabbi Sarna is concerned that Israel finds a way to equally welcome Emirati tourists and not subject them to the strictures often imposed on Arabs and Muslims arriving in the country.

Rabbi Sarna graduated from Hebrew Academy in Cote Saint-Luc, where he was inspired by one of his teachers, Montreal Chief Rabbi Avraham Dovid Niznik. He left Montreal to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion on the West Bank, before entering Yeshiva University in New York. He maintains strong ties to Montreal, where his parents live.

Asked if Montreal influenced what he is doing today, Rabbi Sarna replied, “Growing up in Montreal, in a bilingual, multicultural society, gave me a very interesting understanding of different cultures. I’m very grateful.”

The Abraham Accords: Winners and Losers

Sept. 24, 2020 – By JON ALLEN

The recent UAE-Israel-U.S.A. agreement takes the immediate prospects of Israel’s illegal annexation of part of the West Bank off the table in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain has followed suit, and others – Oman, Sudan and Morocco – could soon. These accords have been variously described as breakthrough peace agreements, an arms deal, and a stab in the back of the Palestinian people.

Clearly, where one stands on this agreement depends on where one sits. For the UAE, the U.S. and Israel, this is a good deal, with multiple benefits. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Palestinians it’s either unwelcome or very bad news.

For the UAE, the accords bring into the open a relationship with Israel that, until now, has flown under the radar. The deal will allow the transfer of strategic defence and intelligence equipment, technology and training that could reinforce its credibility as a leading Gulf state, and help defend itself against its existential enemy, Iran.

The accord also puts the UAE in the good books of the U.S. Congress, the Trump Administration, and Joe Biden. In return for helping Donald Trump dig himself out of his failed Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and depending on the will of the next Congress, the agreement could pave the way for the sale to the UAE of F-35 stealth fighter jets, radar scrambling aircraft, and other American defence equipment.

For the U.S., the agreements are also a plus. By diverting attention from Trump’s “deal of the century” that was going nowhere, and by helping Israel obtain two breakthrough recognition agreements, Trump solidifies his support among the right wing of the U.S. Jewish community and among American evangelicals. The billions that the UAE may spend on F-35s and other materiel are bonuses.

Finally, by taking annexation off the table, the deal removes potential acrimony between the Netanyahu government and the Biden campaign, and between Biden and the right wing of the Jewish community. 

That said, foreign policy issues rarely play a major role in U.S. elections, and these accords are unlikely to give Trump much of a bump in the polls or a fast track to the Nobel Peace Prize that he so desperately seeks.

For Israel, establishment of full relations with important Gulf states – and the legitimacy that confers – and the hope that more could follow, is huge. If the accords lead to a strategic relationship centred on confronting Iran, that development could signal an even greater shift in the region. And that could come without Israel having to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians – the previous sine qua non to any recognition by Arab states.

Finally, the deal was a personal victory for Netanyahu and a brief respite at a time when he is being criticized at home for his failure to manage the economy and the COVID crisis.

Possible downsides of the agreement for Bibi include incurring the wrath of the pro-annexation settler movement. For Israel, a concern is the possible shifting of the strategic balance in the region as a result of the sale of sophisticated equipment to the UAE and other Gulf states that could potentially challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge.

In the medium term, if the agreement convinces Israelis that they can now somehow ignore the Palestinian question, such a notion could pose an existential threat to the nation’s future as a democratic state and the home of the Jewish people.

As mentioned, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia lost ground as a result of the accords. Turkey, which has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949, attacked the UAE for its act of recognition. Turkey also is in conflict with the UAE in both Libya and Yemen, and finds common cause with Iran on various issues, including support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The deal clearly poses challenges on all these fronts.

Of course, Iran is Israel’s strongest and most vocal enemy. By boosting Israel’s legitimacy, breaking ranks among Arab and Muslim nations, and allowing the UAE to enhance its defence capabilities, the deal poses a direct threat to Iran’s credibility in the region at a time when U.S. sanctions, COVID, and a failing economy are already weakening Iranian leadership.

Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also lost some ground. The Saudis’ disastrous forays into Yemen and Libya, coupled with the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, had already put the prince in the U.S. Congress’ bad books. The UAE departed Yemen last year in part to disassociate itself from the Saudis. By offering recognition to Israel without meeting the Arab Peace Initiative’s preconditions, the UAE further disassociated itself from the Saudis. Finally, if Congress does approve the sale of weapons and planes, the UAE will have an enhanced strategic relationship with both the U.S. and Israel that could leave the Saudis playing second fiddle for a time.

As suggested, however, this agreement bodes the worst for the Palestinians. To this point, the quid pro quo for any Arab recognition of Israel was a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Abraham Accords instead trade removing the threat of annexation – an illegal act that was heavily criticized by the international community – for full diplomatic relations.

To add insult to injury, all efforts by the Palestinians to bring the issue before the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council failed miserably. No consensus on criticizing the agreements could be achieved. Palestinian hopes that the Arab street in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might react strongly also were dashed. The only notable protests occurred in the Territories themselves.

Indeed, the only two positive elements of the accords for the Palestinians are that they united Palestinians (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad) in their opposition to them, and that they staved off legislated annexation, at least for now.

The accords’ long-term prospects are harder to predict when it comes to the Palestinians. The UAE and Bahrain claim that they have not forgotten the Palestinians. Will they and others now pressure Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on realistic terms? Will they oppose further settlement expansion? What role will Mohammed Dachlan, a pretender to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ throne and an important adviser to the UAE, play in the future?

I agree with some who say it is crucial for the Palestinian Authority to replace its sclerotic leadership with new blood through open and transparent elections, to bring forward its own proposals for a two-state solution, and to dispel the notion that the Palestinians are only able to say no.

I disagree, however, with those who suggest that the time is now ripe for such a move. No legitimate proposal for a two-state solution that requires compromises on both sides will be negotiated as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister. He has made clear more than once that Palestinian statehood will not happen on his watch. Moreover, the blatantly pro-Israel terms of Trump’s so-called peace plan belies any hope that his Administration might act as an honest broker in such a negotiation.

Rather, the Palestinians should reform their political class, develop a serious draft peace proposal, consult with key Arab states and American allies on the substance and the process going forward, and act boldly once both Trump and Bibi have left the scene.


Jon Allen

Jon Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010.

The Many Facets of the Israel-UAE Deal

Aug. 20, 2020 – By DAVID ROYTENBERG

On Aug. 13, Israel and United Arab Emirates announced the signing of an agreement normalizing relations between the two countries. According to the text of the agreement, “Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.”

In return for the UAE’s pledge to normalize relations, the Israeli government agreed to “suspend” its plan, enshrined in the coalition agreement that established the current government, to proceed with unilateral annexation of territories allocated to Israel in Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan, unveiled earlier this year.

With annexation already delayed because of opposition by the Americans and the Blue and White faction in the governing coalition, this facet of the deal appeared to turn a political liability into an advantage for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reaction to the announcement is revealing, as it separates those who would welcome peace in spite of possible compromise, and from those who would rather pursue their maximal aims at the cost of continuing the conflict. The cries of betrayal from expansionists on the Israeli right were loud and indignant.

Samaria Regional Council leader Yossi Dagan accused Netanyahu of stabbing the settler movement in the back and threatened political consequences. He said that they had stood by Netanyahu until now, but that abandoning annexation was “a step too far.”

Spokespeople for the Palestinian Authority unanimously denounced the UAE pact. Although PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said earlier this year that the threat of annexation represented the death of the two-state solution, nobody in Ramallah seemed pleased that Israel had backed away from the annexation plan.

Palestinian politician Saeb Erekat told Agence France-Presse that the UAE deal with Israel represents the death of the two-state solution. In spite of the concession obtained by the UAE on annexation, he claimed that normalization with Israel would encourage Israeli intransigence.

Leadership in Iran and Turkey had no good words to say, with Iran threatening the UAE would “burn in Zionist fire.”

Support for the agreement came from both main factions within the Israeli government, although Blue and White was apparently kept in the dark until just before the deal was announced.

Supporters of Israel in the United States were broadly in support of the agreement. The Canadian Friends of Peace Now praised the move in a statement, emphasizing that stepping back from annexation was welcome.

Support also came from U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who indicated that working for better relations between Israel and the Gulf States had been a goal of the previous American administration in which he served as vice-president. He welcomed Israel’s decision to suspend its plan for annexation.

Commentators from across the Israeli political spectrum hailed the agreement as historic. The UAE is the first Gulf Arab State to officially end its hostility to Israel. While advocates of annexation were disappointed, the vast majority of Israelis appeared to prefer the UAE deal to the prospect of extending Israeli sovereignty over more territory.

Given the broadly welcoming mood in Israel, it is especially disheartening to see the unanimous rejection of the deal among the Palestinian leadership. One would hope that at least some among them would see the suspension of plans for annexation as a new window of opportunity to negotiate a peace agreement that would offer them more territory than that proposed in the Trump plan.

In the face of many potential risks to Israel had annexation proceeded, it may well be that Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for it was never as firm as his rhetoric suggested. With the UAE deal now achieved, it would be beneficial for both parties if it leads to a renewal of efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.


David Roytenberg
David Roytenberg

David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa. He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.