Rabbi Abadie’s response to critics, high hopes for Gulf Jewish communities

By | Rachel Brooks

Special guest Rabbi Abadie 

February 25, 2021 

Above image credit: “File:Synagogue Aleppo.jpg” by Govorkov is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As the shift in Jewish-Arab relations was made more open and accessible by the U.S. introduction of the Abraham Accords, new opportunities for minority Jewish communities in the Gulf to receive religious representation have opened. This happened in the form of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, a new association recognizing Jewish minority communities across the Middle East. The association made headlines across the world and was covered by Voice of America, Anadolu Agency,  the Times of Israel, and more. 

Republic Underground had as our guest the rabbinical representation for this new association, Rabbi Elie Abadie, MD. 

Abadie’s family roots in the Middle East 

The division between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East has been an ever-present issue in the Middle East since the proverbial vesture was parted in 1947. Rabbi Abadie recalled this history and noted his and his family’s personal experience with the fall out from it. 

“The attacks on the Jewish community were on the heel of the Partition Plan of the United Nations on November 29, 1947. In many Arab countries, the mobs attacked Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, Jewish businesses, only because the United Nations had agreed to partition what was known as Palestine into a Jewish home and an Arab home,” said Abadie. 

“So, my parents lived next to the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, and they saw how the mob entered the synagogue, burned the Torah scroll and the holy books. They carried the Rabbi and dumped him into the street. The next home was my parents’ home. They were coming to loot it. Over 200 people were killed. There were many injured, of course, businesses lost, homes and businesses burned. My parents escaped to Lebanon where I was born.” 

Abadie described what was a mostly peaceful childhood in Lebanon until Arafat and the PLO sought refuge in the nation. 

“Lebanon was tranquil for awhile. My parents were there for 22 years. Then we had to also leave Lebanon, almost escaping because Arafat and his PLO terrorists had come to take refuge in Lebanon, after they were expelled from Jordan, because of the civil war in Jordan,” said Abadie. 

He then noted that the trouble caused to the Jewish community and Lebanon itself by Arafat’s arrival in Lebanon prompted action from his parents, who fled with him to Mexico, where he grew up.

Coming to America, but keeping roots with the Middle East 

“My parents knew that there would eventually be a civil war in Lebanon, so my parents escaped to Mexico where I grew up. In Mexico, I finished high school, I went to the United States to study for college, and also for my rabbinical studies and my medical studies. I eventually settled in the United States where I got married and had my family… But I always kept in touch with my Middle Eastern background, language, customs, culture, food, music, everything.” 

Last week, Gulf Israel Human Rights Forum likewise responded to the criticism of the new Jewish religious representation in the region. 

This strong love for his heritage led Abadie to make connections with the Jewish community nearest his roots. 

“Over 11-12 years ago, a businessman who was a friend of mine in New York was then doing business with the Gulf, at the time we met. He would introduce me to people from the Emirates when they would visit New York. They would come to my synagogue and congregation. That’s how I started establishing connections with that region. Two years ago, I visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi several times. We brought a Torah scroll in memory and honor of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is the Founding Father of the UAE and the father of the Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi. That strengthened my connection with the Jewish community in the Emirates.” 

He then went on to explain how, for over two years, the Jewish community of the Emirates had consulted him on religious affairs, before finally Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and the community asking him to come in in an official capacity as their Senior Rabbi. 

“For over two years, they were consulting me on religious issues, cultural issues, traditional issues, and things like that. Until they asked me to come in and be their senior rabbi in the Emirates itself. So, four months ago, I agreed, and three months ago I moved to Dubai to develop the community.”

He stated that while he established himself in Dubai, he was still mindful of the needs of the Jewish community in Bahrain. 

“I was well aware of the Jewish community in Bahrain, and I assumed that Jews were living in the rest of the Gulf countries. Namely, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. I know that they are few, because of the circumstances, but I know that they exist. The idea was to unite the large and very small communities and to try and service them as much as I can. I’m the only local rabbi in that entire region. So, I feel that responsibility to minister to any individual Jew or community that is there in need of religious advice, spiritual guidance, pastoral care, and kosher food, of course, and adjudication of ritual issues and communal issues. That’s how I came to form the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. Of course, once we started it, we now have members of the association in every country of the six Gulf countries. We’ve got to try to service them as much as we can. As I said, as a rabbi and spiritual leader, many of those individual Jews and communities need that religious and spiritual guidance, and so I’m there for them.” 

He stated that the largest community is the one in the Emirates, with 1,000 Jews as its members. The oldest community is the one in Bahrain, with less than 100 people. He stated that the Jewish community is likewise scattered across Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. 

“There are few of them. Some of them you could count with two hands. There’s a handful of members. Some areas there might be more than that, but we don’t know because they have not yet lived a public Jewish life. But we want to be there for them to help them.” 

Within the last two years, Abadie also noted that the Emirates has chosen to feature the Jewish community in its book of tolerance. A Jewish community has been recognized across Dubai, and Bahrain, with an air of “harmonious living” becoming more present in recent history. 

“The air of peace, of coexistence, of tolerance, of harmonious living, is there, and we have received very positive enthusiasm by several of those governments welcoming us as a community of faith, as Jews.”

 He stated that the community looks forward to a beautiful developmental future in the region of mutual respect and tranquility between the many communities of faith in the region. 

“Historically, Arab and Muslim communities of the past have recognized the presence of a Jewish community in their midst. They have given the Jewish communities autonomy for their religious and internal affairs. I mean, from the advent of Islam 1,400 years ago, with the Treaty of Omar and then the follow-up Treaty of Riyadh in 1983 recognizing the autonomy of those Jewish communities for their internal affairs. The Jews are known as people of the Book and as such Islam and Arab countries have recognized that.” 

He then noted how the current community organization is a “renewing” of that historical link that had been unfortunately broken in recent history due to politics. 

“As to the negative press, that is expected. There’s always going to be detractors and people that like to live in the past, and like to live in a belligerent way. How do we respond? We ignore them, and we continue doing the good work, and we continue doing work with people of good faith, with people who want to live in peace and tranquility and coexistence. We continue respecting each other, we continue helping each other. That’s our response. There’s always going to be people who are negative, people who like to go to war, people who prefer aggressiveness rather than peaceful coexistence.” 

He also emphasized that the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities is not a political organization, but a religious one. 

“It is a religious social organization aimed to help each other as individuals. Individual Jews and Jewish communities. We are not a political entity and we do not advance any political views. It is strictly adherent to our Jewish faith and our Jewish tradition.”

He likewise stated that he hoped that the softening of political relations in the Gulf region would continue to help the progress that was being made. Regarding the recent changes with the Abraham Accords, he expressed confidence that a door of opportunity had been opened. 

“The Abraham Accords definitely opened up a door, although that door existed already. We hope that, in that spirit of normalization, the rest of the countries in the Gulf will normalize and recognize and appreciate the Jewish community and people that live in their midst.” 

He stated that the Jewish community in the region was not connected to the political process.