The Arab World Is Having a Jewish Revolution

The real achievement of the Abraham Accords isn’t geopolitical—it’s cultural.

Two members of Tunisia's Jewish community, one of the largest in the Arab world, light candles 09 May 2004 in the Ghriba synagogue, on the isle of Djerba, on the second day of the annual pilgrimage there.
Two members of Tunisia's Jewish community, one of the largest in the Arab world, light candles 09 May 2004 in the Ghriba synagogue, on the isle of Djerba, on the second day of the annual pilgrimage there. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Washington Post published a stem-winder of an editorial about the Abraham Accords. It was a no holds barred takedown of the agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, accusing its protagonists of cynicism, electioneering, entrenching authoritarianism, entangling the United States in sectarian conflicts in the region, and betraying of the Palestinian cause. To be fair, the editorial writers acknowledged that the normalization deal—they firmly rejected the term “peace agreement”—was positive in the narrowest terms but nevertheless averred that it was the product of U.S. President Donald Trump’s misguided approach to the Middle East. This is tough stuff.

The Post is giving too much credit for the agreement to the White House, but it is also giving too little credit to a critical, but barely remarked upon (among mainstream media and the foreign-policy community) consequence of the Abraham Accords: the normalization of Jews and Judaism in an Arab and Muslim society. That is a big deal.

I look at Emirati efforts to explore and understand the Jewish faith and its outreach to Jews from the vantage point of someone who can be best described as “culturally Jewish.” I feel strong about my identity, but it is not a function of any fealty to Jewish law and custom. Hardly. I complain bitterly when I have to go to synagogue and often sneak a snack on the way to Yom Kippur services during the annual fast. I should also note that I am friends with Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States. We have broken bread too many times to count. We share a range of interests that many guys our age share: our kids, 1980s music, sports, politics, and good food. I value our friendship. It also has no bearing on my work.

The contrast between what the UAE is doing through the Abraham Accords and its broader efforts at outreach to other faiths, notably Roman Catholics, is far beyond the norm of what I’ve grown accustomed to since I began traveling to and living in the Middle East three decades ago. During my time in Cairo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck not by the anti-Zionism that was part of the political discourse—that was to be expected—but rather the anti-Semitism that was part of the cultural discourse. This phenomenon was closely linked to the government’s abdication of critical spheres such as education and culture to the Muslim Brotherhood and, in turn, the regime’s war of position with the Islamists. In Saudi Arabia, schoolchildren were taught that Jews are the descendants of pigs and apes. When I was a student in Damascus, Syria, 26 summers ago, agents of the regime regaled me one evening with a long and exhaustive string of anti-Semitic canards because they felt it was important that they teach me what I did not learn in the United States. I don’t remember any of these narratives making any distinction between Israelis and Jews, undermining a bedrock belief among apologists and the credulous that there is a sharp distinction between criticism of Israel’s conduct and the grotesque image of Jews that is all too common in the region.

With the signing of the Abraham Accords, the Emiratis have flipped the narrative. Their outreach to Israel has generated an interest in Jews and Judaism that is refreshing. The English-language Khaleej Times  published a Rosh Hashanah supplement. There were Rosh Hashanah services in Abu Dhabi—a first (though there is a Jewish community in Dubai that has celebrated New Year before). The government has directed that there be kosher meal option in hotels and on the country’s air carriers. And in keeping with the last few years, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wished Jews “Shana tova” in a tweet. When was the last time other foreign ministers did that? It is important to note that even before there was something called the Abraham Accords, the Emiratis were spending a lot of time and effort on building an interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi connecting a mosque, church, and synagogue called the Abrahamic Family House as a center of religious tolerance. Earlier this year, I ran into one of Washington’s well-known rabbis in the airport waiting for a flight from the Emirates back home. He had been there to take part in one of the Emirati government’s initiatives to foster tolerance.

To many, I am sure the Emiratis’ outreach to Jews may seem like a cynical ploy. I can already hear the objections to this piece and can imagine the Twitter criticisms: “The Emiratis are just ‘Jew washing’ their terrible record on Yemen and human rights,” or “This is cynical public relations by a country that wants to hold itself out as a model of tolerance, but it isn’t a model of tolerance at all so long as political opponents are jailed.” These are, of course, entirely valid concerns. I am hardly naive, but I am willing to take the Emiratis at their word, if only because they seem so genuinely interested in normalizing Judaism. And, even if it is public relations, I am still OK with it. After all, it is better than the opposite, in which there is a race to the bottom over who in the region can outdo one another in terms of Jew hatred. The Emiratis also seem to have created a positive dynamic across the region. The Saudis, who remain resistant to establishing ties with Israel despite reports of pressure from the Trump administration, are themselves rethinking their approach to the Jewish faith. The Egyptians had a brief moment of introspection about the past and the role of Jews in Egyptian society a number of years ago, but the issue remains fraught. I’ve heard that young Iraqis are doing the same, which is close to my heart because my Uncle Anwar is from Baghdad, having left in 1947 on a scholarship to the University of Denver only never to return out of fear of his safety. Perhaps what the Emiratis are doing—regardless of what anyone thinks about their intentions—will produce some good in a region sorely in need of it.

So editorial writers, journalists, and analysts can heap criticism on the Abraham Accords all they want. They may turn out to be correct, and normalization between the UAE and Israel is not all that it is cracked up to be, but for this Jewish kid, it may be bigger. I am actually looking forward to going to synagogue in Abu Dhabi, even if I complain about it on the way there.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.