My New Jewish Week Piece - The Unrevised Edition

Swimming in the Arabian Gulf

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

A week after Qatar and Iran pledged $100 million dollars to the Arab League to aid the struggling Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, I was on a Qatar Airways flight, watching Rabbi Rolando Matalon stare out into the Saudi Arabian sky. The Qataris’ indirect gift to Hamas wasn’t going to stop him from going to Doha, nor was it going to deter the former Chief Rabbi of France and the other four rabbis (three Americans, one Brit) on their way to the Middle East. But Western rabbis traveling to Qatar is hardly headline news. Matalon was there last year, with the first small group of Jews to be invited to the Conference on Religious Dialogue in Doha. What was making headline news in the Arab world this year was the fact that – due to the ground-breaking work of Matalon, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Dr. Mark Cohen and Rabbi Burt Vizotsky - rabbis from Israel were asked to speak at the conference. While Roly and I flew over Mecca, Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky (Orthodox - Jerusalem) and Rabbi David Lazar (Conservative – Tel Aviv) were making a car trip to Amman to catch a plane to Doha. Israeli rabbis headed for an inter-religious conference in a Wahabbi Muslim land. That is a first.

Wearing a yarmulke in Doha elicits a wide range of responses. As I walked through the airport, a man made the deep throat rattling sounds that alerted me to a potential spit incident. I walked a bit faster. But there were also unexpected surprises. A secretary from the Venezuelan embassy saw me in the hotel lobby and said “I am so happy to see you! I have not seen a Jew in two years!” She told me that her mother now lives in Miami, and all her friends are Jewish. A Palestinian man from Beirut greeted me in Hebrew with a “Shalom Aleciem. Hashaym Sheli Ahmed.” – words he had learned from his father, who had Jewish friends in Haifa before he fled. And with a boyish grin, an older Qatari official confessed to me that he had a Jewish girlfriend when he went to college in the U.S.

What can be accomplished in a religious dialogue? The conference itself, comprised of 130 Muslims, Christians, and Jews, mostly men, and mostly from the Middle East and Europe, was like many such events – dry speakers going well over their allotted time, speaking at a pace that the translators can not keep up with. One exception to the dry talks was the Imam from Denmark who had stirred up anger around the cartoon depictions of Mohammed. He pounded his fist on the dais and sprayed a fine mist onto the microphone. But there were moments in the conference that were unexpected. First off, the lead organizer from Qatar University, the Dean of Islamic Law, was a woman. Fully covered in a long-sleeved black dress and traditional headscarf, she moderated the opening panel with great civility and a touch of humor. Given that so many inter-religious events in the West are moderated by men, it was refreshing to be in the Muslim world and see her face on the jumbotron behind the dais.

Another highlight came during the session moderated by Rabbi Mirsky. After the session, a Palestinian participant asked when the “genocide” against the Palestinian people would come to an end. Mirsky tried to clarify the question, but the man yelled out, in English, “there is no Israel. It is Palestine! It has always been Palestine! Israel is the name of a prophet! The country is Palestine!” Mirsky attempted to raise the fact that there were many names, “it is also called Terra Sancta,” he remarked, but he was interrupted again “It is Palestine! There is no Israel!” A number of Palestinians and sympathizers erupted in applause, cheering the “There is no Israel!” cries on. A British Jew, Sidney Shipton, yelled out in what sounded like a House of Lords sound-bite “Would the gentleman please recognize the chair!’ but this only made the tension escalate. I was ready to run for the door. Was the conference about to turn on us? It wasn’t until one of our Qatari hosts intervened that I could breathe again. “We are not here to discuss this matter.” He said. “This is a conference on religious dialogue.” Afterwards Rabbi Mirsky made a noble attempt to speak with the Palestinian who had instigated the incident. It did not get very far.

But other exchanges did help us to understand one another, and speak in ways that transcended the usual political discourse. Matalon’s speech on the religious response to globalization was widely praised. I was asked to speak on environmental issues, and even the Palestinian who responded to my speech with a laundry list of Israel’s environmental crimes was willing to recognize that the only peaceful future for Israel and a potential Palestine is dependent on agreements on water and close cooperation on other environmental issues. In the hallway we shared a cup of coffee. Rabbi Fuchs–Kreimer ended the conference with an inspiring conversation with a Saudi woman professor who directs a center for domestic violence. In these moments of authentic dialogue and exchange we went beyond the formalities and met one another with open hearts.

What did I learn from traveling to Qatar? It occurred to me that Doha may be the new Geneva. The Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani rules a country whose citizens are devout and conservative Muslims, but he has already shown an interest in opening up to the wider world and acting as a bridge builder between rivals. His interest in religious dialogue, supported by the foreign minister, and by the Emir’s pioneering wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, is part of a wider strategy of engagement with the outside world that includes investment in American universities and investment in environmentally friendly technology. For these advances, the Qatatri leadership has been criticized by those in the Arab world who despise the West; criticism that will only escalate now that they have publicly recognized rabbis from Israel. They will most likely be labeled ‘Zionists,’ which would probably make them the only Zionists on the planet who side with Iran in supporting the Hamas-led PA.

On the last day of my stay in Qatar, after a grueling squash match with a young Pakistani Muslim scholar, I ran down to the beach by our hotel and jumped into the Gulf. Looking out over the oil rigs in the distance, treading water, I felt that perhaps Qatar will not only be the place where liquefied natural gas is mined and major business deals are inked. Perhaps this may be the place where a wealth of natural resources will be translated into wealth of human advancement – educationally and environmentally. If the Emir continues on his path to openness, there is hope that Qatar will be the place where enemies meet and peace treaties are signed. Inshallah.

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner directs the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.