For the JC Sept 10 2020
“Oh, yes”, says Simon Eder, casually, “we had a donation of a sefer Torah from a sheikh who owned one of the big Dubai property companies. He wanted to have his name on the cover of the Torah, so I think a separate cover was made, just in case”.
Londoner Simon Eder and his wife Sharon were co-founders of the Dubai Jewish community, now thought to be about 300 strong. And they are convinced that the new deal being celebrated between Israel and the UAE would not have happened without the good and warm relations between the government and the growing Jewish community.
The Eders (who returned to London in 2013) moved to Dubai for work in 2007, much to the horror of their north-west London friends. Sharon’s mother was from Libya and her father from Iraq, Simon’s family solid Ashkenazi. But, says Simon, Israeli friends reacted differently: all they wanted to know was when they could visit.
And that different response, believes Simon, is because of “Israel’s indirect involvement over many years” with the Emirates, which the Eders witnessed up close but which has not been discussed publicly.
Israel’s “under-the-radar” relations with the UAE go back a long way, he says. When, in 2012, Sharon Eder had their son in Dubai, the couple wanted to have a brit milah for him and so brought a mohel from South Africa. At the same time, “the undercover Israeli attaché in Dubai was also having a baby boy and heard about our brit. The mohel became a mini-celebrity in the region and she had a brit for her son. It was a sort of ‘brit diplomacy’ — the American ambassador was there, various locals… all behind closed doors”.
This was, as Simon Eder recalls, only two years after the botched operation in which Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in Dubai and Mossad was blamed. “Relations were publicly severed. But they actually weren’t at all: they just went underground”.
The idea that Israel had an “undercover attaché” in Dubai is jaw-dropping enough. But Simon Eder talks about the “blind eye” culture, too, which enabled him to bring a sefer Torah from London’s Marble Arch synagogue, to be questioned about it at Dubai’s airport, and yet successfully bring it to the “Villa”, which was the ad hoc headquarters of the nascent Jewish community.
Things changed considerably between 2008 and 2012, he says. In 2008, there was no option on the Emirates ID card to enter “Jewish” as one’s religion. By 2012, that was possible. Quietly, the sheikhs who govern the UAE were encouraging new businesses to set up shop, from helping establish the Dubai Financial District to the new Diamond Bourse. And along with the “key businesses” were, of course, key business people — many of whom were Jewish.
Over Pesach 2010 the Eders went to Sri Lanka and met the Chabad rabbi there, who mentioned that a previous visitor had been the head librarian of Abu Dhabi, responsible for stocking the national library with a wide variety of books — and a Talmud and the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The librarian had a crucial email list of around 20 people, who became the bedrock of the new Jewish community.
Simon Eder paints a compelling picture of “don’t ask” during those years. The Eders’ first child, a daughter, was born just after Rosh Hashanah in 2010 and two Chabad rabbis had been invited from New York to help run the High Holy Day services. But the baby was in intensive care and the rabbis wanted to say prayers for her. “I had told them to dress as discreetly as possible, which obviously was not adhered to in any way, shape or form. We took them to our daughter’s bedside — where they said tehillim and were speaking at the tops of their voices, in Hebrew, with my mother-in-law. And all in an Arab hospital”. There were “looks”, reports Simon, “but also a kind of acceptance”.
To begin with, he says, “we trod a very narrow tightrope, because we felt there was a tolerance to Jews, but definitely not to Israel, at least publicly. But because we functioned behind closed doors, we knew that there was knowledge [of the Jewish community]”. Add that to Dubai’s emphasis on tolerance and diversity, and an opening up about religion in the region, prompted a shift in attitude.
The peace deal, Simon Eder feels, “opens up for the first time, officially, the possibility of direct trade links. The opportunities are endless: not that it hasn’t been happening, on virtually every level, with Israelis entering on European passports, week in, week out, between Tel Aviv and Dubai, via Jordan. I really think it will awaken other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, because of the changing geopolitical landscape”.