The Jewish Chronicle
Iraq should learn true tolerance from the UAE
While the Emiratis have embraced co-existence, the Iraqis have spurned their Jewish history
LOOKING OUT onto the sea of religious head coverings — a panoply of zucchettos, kippas, and taqiyahs — the desire for coexistence and tolerance was unmistakable. It was early 2019, and Abu Dhabi was in the midst of its first-ever visit from the leader of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Francis. The trip was historic in innumerable ways. Its timing was also incredibly apropos, taking place during what the Emirates had dubbed the Year of Tolerance.
At the heart of the ambitious Papal schedule was a desire to cultivate interfaith dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions — Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Global news coverage focused on the signature event, a Sunday Mass in the national football stadium attended by tens of thousands of Catholics. However, it was gatherings such as the intimate ceremony held the night before Mass, attended by leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, which highlighted the desire of the Emiratis to be truly inclusive.
The same, it would appear, cannot be said for the Pope’s most recent trip to Iraq, at least as it pertains to the embrace of all Abrahamic faiths. The moving scene of Christians and Muslims coming together in a place where, just a few years earlier, war crimes and religious atrocities had taken place was incredibly powerful. And while the visit has been rightly heralded as inspiring, uplifting, and transformative for the country’s besieged Christian community it was a missed opportunity for religious pluralism.
While the full story of religious diversity thriving in the UAE has only recently come to light, Iraq had a remarkable history of religious tolerance and coexistence. There was a time when Baghdad was seen as one of the epicenters of the Jewish world. During the first half of the 20th century, Baghdad’s Jewish community was over 130,000, or 25 percent of the city’s population. Jewish life was so intertwined with Iraqi culture that in 1947 Renée Dangor — whose grandfather had been Chief Rabbi of Baghdad — was Miss Iraq .
Yet not even 75 years later, Jews were nowhere to be found. It has been reported that despite Vatican desires for a public Jewish presence during his visit, no such attendance was permitted. Although the number of Jews residing in Iraq has dwindled to single digits (and one of the last died two weeks ago), there are tens of thousands living throughout the diaspora — some of whom would likely have welcomed the opportunity to safely return to a land where they have deep roots.
Conversely, during the various functions held during the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi, Jewish people were welcomed with open arms. Even those — more than 18 months before the signing of the Abraham Accords — with significant connections to the State of Israel. I witnessed this desire for interfaith dialogue first hand. With no secret made about my years serving as a regional political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I was given the opportunity to help lead a delegation of western thought leaders — primarily journalists and academics — to Abu Dhabi for the Papal visit. Throughout my time in the UAE, I consistently
The point about democracies is that they work on the assumption that voters judge politicians, not the other way round’
encountered sincerity, tolerance, and a genuine curiosity towards my faith and strong support for the Jewish state.
Numerous rabbis participated in events throughout the Pope’s visit, including several who were prominently featured at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity that ran concurrently with the trip. In the high-level meetings our delegation held with senior Emirati officials, religious tolerance was a frequent topic. The UAE’s views towards Israel were discussed on the record. The Minister for Culture proudly showed the group Jewish artifacts displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
All of this was taking place at a time when formal relations between the UAE and Israel did not exist. Moving these types of conversations into the public sphere was likely intended to gauge foreign and domestic reactions to a new Middle East paradigm. The groundwork for the Abraham Accords was years in the making.
It is equally clear that the Emiratis were ready to capitalise on this type of momentous occasion. They saw the Pope’s historic visit not only as a way to show the world they were serious about coexistence, but for their own population as well. The Emirati leadership made a strategic choice to publicly highlight an important segment of their population: the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who hail from every corner of the globe but now call the UAE home.
The Iraqi government’s ostensible reluctance to similarly embrace all faiths — including their long history with Jews — will only impede their nation’s road to recovery. Unfortunately, it will also delay an opportunity decades in the making to once again serve as a global beacon of hope for religious tolerance and coexistence.