Last week, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman of Teaneck, the president of Yeshiva University, spoke at a Yom HaShoah commemoration. He was joined by other leaders; they stood in a courtyard and lit candles in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
At the end, another rabbi recited the memorial prayer El Moleh Rachamim in solemn tribute to those murdered Jews.
In the local language. Arabic.
And as he did so, the group could hear the Muslim call to prayer spiraling out from a nearby tower, also in Arabic. The two voices, the rabbi’s and the muezzein’s, intersected, similar but different, not altering but intensifying the moment.
Rabbi Berman was in Dubai, at the first Holocaust Memorial Day marked in the United Arab Emirates, or for that matter in any Arab country. That day also saw the opening of an exhibit about the Holocaust, and about Muslims who became like other Righteous Among the Nations as they rescued Jews, at the local Museum of the Crossroads of Civilization.
It was both the start of something new — relationships between Israel and the UAE, and between Jews and Arabs more broadly, as a result of the Abraham Accords — and also in a way the resumption of something old, the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.
Rabbi Berman, who, like other university presidents, has guided his institution through the perils, challenges, grief, and hard-won victories in the fight against covid and in favor of science, health, and sanity, spent Pesach in Israel. Like most of his family, Rabbi Berman is a citizen of both the United States and Israel, and while he, his wife, and their family moved back to the United States so he could lead YU, his parents, sister, brother, and their families live in Israel. He had been able to travel freely between these places that he loves until covid hit, but because Israel is loosening some of the restrictions he was able to join his family for the holiday.
“It felt different,” Rabbi Berman said. “It wasn’t as full, because the tourists weren’t there, but Israel itself felt very open.” With more than 20 people around the seder table, “it felt magical,” he added. “For my parents to have their children and grandchildren together, after a year like this — we were able to appreciate the time that we could be together. That’s one of the lessons of this year.”
Armed with this lesson — about challenges and how to appreciate them and the new understandings they offer, once you open your eyes — Rabbi Berman went from Pesach in Israel to Yom HaShoah in Dubai.
The event was an outgrowth of the Abraham Accords, the peace agreements the United States brokered between Israel and the UAE, and later with Bahrain. “It’s not just a political pact, or at least the ramifications are not just political,” Rabbi Berman said. “It potentially signals a way to bridge the gap not just between the UAE and Israel, but between Muslims and Jews. That’s really the opportunity here.”
When Rabbi Berman talked to Ahmed Obaid Al-Mansoori, who founded the museum, “he said that the Abraham Accords felt like the return of family. He sees it as Ishmael and Yitzhak,” the biblical brothers who go on to lead very different lives, head very different families, and according to midrash found very different nations, but still always are brothers.
Rabbi Berman’s doctorate, from the Hebrew University, focused on medieval Jewish philosophy, and specifically on relationships between Jews and non-Jews; he looked at how the philosophers he studied understood those relationships. That scholarship provides him with a useful knowledge base now.
In Dubai, “I met with political, business, and education leaders to better understand the lay of the land and see if we can help bridge the divides,” he said. “One of the conversations I had was with a Muslim scholar. He wrote his doctorate on comparing pilgrimages in different traditions.” In the Muslim world, the prime such pilgrimage is to the Kaaba, in Mecca; the Jewish tradition includes aliyah b’regel, the three annual excursions to Jerusalem. There is much for scholars to discuss there.
The commemoration, at which Rabbi Berman spoke, was organized by the Jewish Council of the Emirates, and the participants included the chief rabbi of the UAE, Yehuda Sarna; the museum’s COO, Yael Grafy, the museum’s founder, Ahmed Obaid Al-Mansoori, and three representatives of the Jewish Council, Jonathan Fried, Alex Peterfreund, and the Jewish Council’s senior rabbi, Elie Abadie; it was Rabbi Abadie who’d sung the Arabic El Moleh.
As the head of Yeshiva University, the institution that also had educated him, Rabbi Berman was struck by its reach. Rabbi Sarna and Rabbi Abadie “are both Yeshiva University graduates and musmachim” — they both were ordained at the school. “It shows that the new direction, bringing Jews and Muslims together globally, has been led by Yeshiva University graduates,” he said; he also mentioned Jason Greenblatt of Teaneck, who went from the Trump Organization to working for Jared Kushner on the previous administration’s Middle East plan, and David Friedman, who had been that administration’s ambassador to Israel. Mr. Greenblatt graduated from YU, and the school recently gave Mr. Friedman an honorary doctorate. “They are all doing incredible work to move the relationships forward,” Rabbi Berman said.
Looking back on the experience, “it was moving and impactful,” he added.
He was struck by Rabbi Sarna’s insistence on understanding history. “He said that it’s important for the Jewish people to broaden the narrative of the role of the Arabs during the Holocaust,” Rabbi Berman said. For most Jews now, “the most prominent narrative is of the mufti of Jerusalem,” who worked with Hitler during the Holocaust. But that is just one story; a terrible one, but not the only one. At the commemoration, speakers told the stories of three Arabs who rescued Jews. They were not the only such heroes; researchers now are at work “trying to recover other stories where Arab Muslims saved Jews, at great risk to themselves.” At the museum, officials dedicated three mezuzahs in the memory of those three rescuers.
Rabbi Berman was very aware of being in Dubai “as a representative of the flagship Jewish university, and thus as a representative of the Jewish people,” he said. Not as an Israeli, not as a politician. He was not there for technology, nor for business, although certainly those things matter.
“There are a lot of positive consequences that emerge from the Abraham Accords, in technology and in business, but what I think of is that this isn’t a modern question,” he said. “This is a divide of the millenia. We are working to build a bridge and to reach out in friendship. They are interested in joining the fight to combat anti-Semitism, to fight for tolerance.
“This is a potential partnership that could have huge ramifications.”
And it all comes back to education, Rabbi Dr. Berman, the educator, said.
“Education plays a crucial role. We’re all very naturally thinking about business and technology, and the ways that Israel and the UAE can come together for their mutual benefit. I’m also thinking about the investment in education that can shift perceptions to a much more enriching way of looking at one another.”
That’s why it’s so important for Jews to learn more about the role Muslims played in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, and why it’s so important that the UAE commemorated the Holocaust. “That in itself is monumental,” Rabbi Berman said. He goes back in memory to the intersecting prayers, the Jewish and Muslim one, that reverberated throughout the courtyard. “They were two distinct voices, yet resonating in a kind of harmony,” he said.