With the Jewish holidays behind us, there’s a back-to-school vibe at UJA. Our staff is beginning to acclimate to increasing in-person workdays. And for the first time this week, our conference center — empty for so many months — is beginning to buzz again with people happily escaping their Zoom boxes and interacting with (vaccinated) others.
We welcomed a particularly auspicious visitor to our conference center early Monday morning: His Excellency Dr. Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Undersecretary for Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain. The Shaikh has been instrumental to Bahrain’s “Warm Peace Strategy” with Israel, which, importantly, includes building stronger ties with American Jewry. As I noted to the Jewish leaders and philanthropists who joined the meeting, the Shaikh’s presence at UJA would have been inconceivable even just a short time ago. But one of the few incredibly positive developments over this very challenging year has been the signing of the Abraham Accords, which has the potential to dramatically transform the Middle East — and the world.
The Shaikh’s comments were inspiring. He spoke of the three pillars undergirding Bahrain’s strategy — peace, prosperity, and coexistence. He referenced the trip to Bahrain less than 10 days ago by Yair Lapid, the first Israeli foreign minister ever to visit Bahrain, who opened Israel’s first embassy there. Just hours later, the first-ever commercial flight flew from Bahrain to Tel Aviv.
And the Shaikh reflected warmly on his recent six-day trip to Israel, which included meetings with President Herzog, senior leaders at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as scuba diving on his birthday at the beautiful kibbutz in northern Israel, Rosh Hanikra. The Shaikh was also the first Gulf leader to meet publicly with leadership of the IDF, Israel’s Defense Forces.
Perhaps most poignantly, the Shaikh told a story about an encounter with an Israeli official at a prominent annual conference held in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, to discuss the Middle East’s most pressing security challenges. Just prior to the start of the conference, the Shaikh had lunch with the Israeli, who asked if it would be O.K. if he put on his kippah during their meal. The Shaikh responded, “Of course.” After the meal, as they were walking together toward the conference hall, the Shaikh noticed that the Israeli was no longer wearing his kippah, and asked why. The Israeli responded that he took it off because he didn’t want to embarrass the Shaikh. The Shaikh responded that he was almost offended that the Israeli would remove his kippah for that reason, and asked that he put it back on as they walked together into the conference hall.
It is of course impossible to predict the future, to know if other countries in the region, most prominently Saudi Arabia, will join the Abraham Accords, or even whether the plethora of aspirational agreements that have now been signed between Israel and the other Abraham Accord countries will blossom into a vibrant and sustained reality. But these developments are an enormous source of hope in a region that for a very long time has not appeared very hopeful.
The meeting with the Shaikh also resonated personally with me. On Wednesday, my son Adin and his wife, Noa, moved to live in Israel. And in about two weeks’ time, assuming Israeli bureaucracy cooperates, my son — after basic training — will join a legal unit of the IDF.
For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we pray that the history we see being made today will lead to a more peaceful future for Israel, the Middle East, and for us all.