Dubai is not Indonesia, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Eight Hours in Dubai: More Enlightening than I Thought

I had been looking forward to spending a little time in Dubai, on our way from Jakarta to Amman and finally, Thursday night to Jerusalem. However, it turned into a mini adventure that put the day’s activities into perspective.

This morning was a great session hammering out a consensus statement from the group. Many Muslim leaders – from the States and Indonesia – emphasized how important it was for the Arab world and the Muslim world to recognize the State of Israel – but, of course, they wanted it along with recognizing either the rights of the Palestinians to a state, or, some beyond that, to outright recognizing Palestine. 

In the end, we crafted a document that recognized the national aspirations of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. I was very happy with that language which did not attempt to propose a political solution to achieve that goal.

But it was impressive that Muslims had moved their people so close to recognizing Israel. 

After the session, one of the Indonesians worked hard to explain how Hana – in Javanese, meaning existence, was like – אהיה אשר אהיה – I will be Whom I will be. I don’t always understand them, but all the Indonesians – Christian and Muslim – are proud of how the Javanese culture has integrated Hinduism and Buddahism with Islam. 

Dr Yousuf – of the NU organization which represents the 30 million Muslims, mentioned yesterday, sat next to me on the bus to the airport and he said the organization stands for: Moderation, Tolerance, Balance.

Interestingly: Indonesians wear ties – the don’t interpret the Qur’anic verse of prohibiting going in the ways of the pagans (like the Torah’s “uv’chukoteihem lo telechu – the ways of the gentiles) in the way the Iranians or the old ulama (religious leaders) used to. They consider prohibiting ties to be merely a political prohibition. Kids in the religious boarding school we saw yesterday wore ties as did their teachers…

So that’s Indonesia. Smiles – sincere smiles – from everyone, and at least the language of tolerance and respect. Felt so comfortable there – so welcome. The government might not be doing enough to fight the forces of intolerance, but at least they seem to believe in respect and tolerance for all.

And on Emirates Airlines we felt the same way: they have kosher meals on Emirates – from Belgium. Not so good, but very kosher. And they have good Scotch (Glenfiddich 15…). So the airline was fine.

But Dubai is a world apart – no more smiles from anybody. What a contrast!

And with the five Jews in our group of 24 wearing kippot, it didn’t take long for the trouble, or challenges that I wrote of on Facebook just a few hours ago. A soldier/officer type asked me how many Jews were in the group. And while I answered, that I thought about 5, I really didn’t feel good about answering. Both the Muslims and the Christians in the group that were aware of the reason for the delay – that soldier had to ask his superiors, etc. – were very supportive. One Imam offered to wear a kippah. The Episcopalian was not happy with the excuse the guard in the white robe gave that there was no problem with Jews in Dubai, just for our own protection we had to either cover our kippot with a hat or take them off.

Some of us joked that this felt like an Entebbe moment – I cannot remember when I personally have ever been selected or separated as a Jew. In the end a Palestinian American Imam schmoozed with the guard, and tried to sensitize him to how it would feel if a Muslim woman were asked to remove her head covering. We shared Hadith about Muhammad and Jews who liked him. There is a lot of work to be done, but still believe it starts with relationship building.

So I sign off from an ornate hotel room in a glitzy hotel in Dubai, wearing my kippa. The guard said we could inside the hotel… I want to see how things will be in Jordan, Ramallah and Bethlehem. But I am with a great group, and we are all growing together.

Layla tov and Shalom al Yisrael,


Asher Lopatin

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