AJC Atlanta’s Experiences in the Gulf

AJC Atlanta’s Experiences in the Gulf

A look back at past diplomatic missions to Persian Gulf region, an area that has gained significance with Israel’s recent peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Dov Wilker is the regional director of AJC.

The AJC delegation at a meeting with a United Arab Emirates company.
The AJC delegation at a meeting with a United Arab Emirates company.

For more than 25 years, American Jewish Committee has been traveling to the Persian Gulf region under the leadership of Jason Isaacson, AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer. Through these visits, AJC has established significant relationships with the local Jewish communities, along with government officials, who have supported the creation of the historic Abraham Accords, Israel’s peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Here are three anecdotes from their visits:

Melanie and Allan Nelkin at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Dubai.

2014: Melanie and Allan Nelkin – Bahrain

When we landed in the Manama airport, the first person to welcome us was Houda Nonoo, the Bahraini ambassador to the U.S. between 2008 and 2013.  Meeting a Jewish diplomat in Bahrain was both shocking and exhilarating.  She and her husband welcomed our AJC entourage into their home for dinner where we were met by other members of the diplomatic and tiny Jewish community. Houda’s husband expressed his frustration about the illegality of travel between Bahrain and Israel, where he was disconnected with so many relatives.

The first diplomatic meeting of our trip was with Bahrain’s foreign minister – also our most memorable.  One could feel a sense of tension among our group while awaiting his arrival.  The foreign minister finally arrived exclaiming “Jason, it’s so wonderful to see you again!” as he delivered a welcoming hug to Jason Isaacson, …  The room’s tension immediately morphed into a feeling of warmth and familiarity.  Having been advised our meeting was “off the record,” it was a shock to find our group photo with the foreign minister on the front page of the local newspaper with the caption: “American Jewish Committee Delegation Visits Bahrain.”

Before we left the United States, we were forewarned not to use the word “Israel” in meetings, let alone in public. In Dubai, we were secreted away to a hotel room to light Shabbat candles and recite prayers with a few dozen Jewish expats living there.

The AJC delegation at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Dubai.

2017: Sheri and Steve Labovitz – United Arab Emirates

In the fall of 2017, we traveled to Oman, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai as part of AJC’s annual diplomatic mission to the Gulf. We were so fortunate to see amazing sights and learn about the rich cultures of the region. We were also a little part of history. Whether meeting with high-ranking leaders of these countries, conversing with business executives about growing (but behind the scenes) trade with Israel, witnessing the exchange of technology in the model city of Masdar, or sharing Shabbat with the fledgling but growing Jewish “community” of the Emirates, it was quite apparent that while there might have been a public perception of very cool relations between these countries and Israel, there were warming winds in the air.

Also apparent was the important role that AJC, and specifically our mission leader, played in these blossoming relationships.  They have worked tirelessly over the years to cultivate sophisticated, yet warm relationships, with political and business leaders in these countries. Visiting a U.S. military base in Bahrain and the U.S. embassy in Dubai, we could see the important work of our diplomats and military leaders, an intricate dance between Israel and the United States, or United States and the UAE and Bahrain.

Without being overly optimistic or naïve about the monumental nature of the recent events, it is clear that patience and nuanced diplomacy works, and although history moves slowly, it was thrilling to witness a bit of it.

The AJC delegation atop the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

2018: Murray and Marcia (z”l) Goldman – Shabbat in Dubai

When we arrived in Dubai, it was Shabbat and Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah, one of UAE’s most preeminent imams, was having his annual interfaith conference in Abu Dhabi. From this conference, a contingent of 20 rabbis (from Israel, the EU and U.S.) joined us in Dubai to celebrate Shabbat along with the local Jewish community, including Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs.

The Shabbat service (a rousing Ashkenazi/Sephardic Orthodox service) and delicious kosher dinner took place in “The Shul,” a condominium unit in a residential neighborhood. The only way that attendees knew it was the location of the services was a certain truck was parked outside the building. One of the expats at dinner was a teacher from North Carolina. Turns out, she knew some of my wife Marcia’s relatives and friends. Our Jewish prayers were blended with the Muslim call for prayer from the minarets.

It just happened that I had Kaddish for my father that night. In the Sephardic traditions, the individual saying Kaddish comes to the bimah and leads the prayers. Being a conservative Ashkenazic Jew, that was new to me, especially since the tunes were different! It was probably the most surreal Jewish experience I have ever had.

Even in 2018, one could see how the attitudes of the UAE leadership towards Israel and Judaism were changing towards cooperation instead of conflict.

Dov Wilker is the regional director of AJC Atlanta.

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