March 27, 2020 — Jerusalem, Israel
This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.
As I settled in my seat on a Saudi Airlines flight bound for Riyadh from Istanbul, a Saudi gentleman came over and said, “I just want to tell you how happy I am that a religious Jewish man is coming to Saudi Arabia. It is a sign of new and good times for our country.” I then realized that I had not taken off my kippah. Continuing the conversation, he asked me: “Did you see that Dr. Mohammed Al Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League from Mecca, led a delegation of Arab Muslim leaders to Auschwitz a few weeks ago?” Indeed, I was part of the AJC delegation at that historic joint Muslim-Jewish event. The presence of such a high-ranking Saudi Muslim leader at the site of the death camps, expressing uncompromising condemnation of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, made it a truly groundbreaking occasion.
Now I was part of another landmark occasion, on my way to Riyadh as one of the nine governors of the King Abdullah International Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). Established in 2012 by Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain, together with the Holy See, as an intergovernmental center based in Vienna, KAICIID is governed by a board of representatives from five faiths. I am the sole Jewish member of this body.
The Center is the outcome of the vision of the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who convened a pan-Islamic gathering in Mecca in 2008 to support his initiative for global inter-religious engagement. He then travelled to the Vatican to gain the Pope’s support and subsequently convened gatherings in Madrid and at the United Nations. The Center conducts a remarkable array of programs, including training young religious leaders and activists from a wide spectrum of religious communities in the skills of dialogue. As a result, hundreds of future leaders have been empowered in this field and have become members of an international interreligious community.
For me, KAICIID has also provided the opportunity to engage Muslim leaders from the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, whom I would not have been able to meet otherwise. Most of them had never met a Jew before, let alone a rabbi. It was through KAICIID that I had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Al Issa some years ago and develop a genuine friendship with him.
The KAICIID Board meetings have convened mostly in Vienna, but also in Madrid and Rome. No meeting had taken place in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, never had a multifaith delegation ever been officially invited to the Kingdom. To my pleasant surprise I discovered after arriving in Riyadh that we had been invited to the royal palace to be received by King Salman, Custodian of the two Holy Mosques of Islam. I would be the first rabbi to be received in the kingdom by a Saudi monarch.
The King’s palace is impressive, a gleaming white complex from without, and inside a grand opulent sequence of corridors and reception rooms as well as offices. We were received there by two guards of honor in customary Arab dress, one with traditional daggers, the other with swords. After moving from one reception room to another (and consuming an abundance of coffee on the way), we were ushered into the King’s reception room where Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal also was present. We were seated according to an already determined protocol and the King addressed us in Arabic followed by an English translation, thanking us for our work on behalf of KAICIID and emphasizing the importance of interreligious collaboration.
“Today it is not possible, let alone desirable, to be in isolation of one another,” King Salman told us. “The challenges for humanity are vast—social, scientific and so on; and it is our religious duty to know one another and to collaborate with one another for the good of society at large.”
He also had an arguable take on Islam in Saudi Arabia. “True Islam is tolerant, enlightened and embracing,” he declared. “This is the way we were before political factors led to us to become more extreme and insular. Today, we are reasserting the authentic historical enlightened and tolerant Islam that respects all religions and peoples.”
The King was referring to Saudi reactions to the Islamic revolution in Iran, as well as radicalization elsewhere. However, whether one accepts the monarch’s interpretation of Saudi religious history or not, clearly it is the direction in the which the King is seeking to take his country. During our visit, we saw the historic site of Old Dir’aiyah, Riyadh’s ancient predecessor as the first capital of Saudi Arabia. It has been restored as a beautiful tourist location and museum, and the majority of guides and instructors there were women, albeit well covered up. The notorious modesty patrols have disappeared, women’s education is advancing exponentially, and women in public roles of all kinds are more evident.
Following the audience with King Salman, we were hosted by the Secretary General of KAICIID, Faisal Al Mouammar, at his exquisitely beautiful home, to which many leading Saudi scholars and intellectuals had also been invited. One of the most prominent of the scholars declared that our meeting with the King was “absolutely unprecedented and historic, and of great significance for Saudi Arabia.”
But perhaps the moment that most reflected the spirit of change in Saudi Arabia today was our meeting with some 70 men and women graduates of the third cohort of Salam, a program for the promotion of intercultural communication and understanding. They were in their twenties, mostly university graduates (many of whom had studied abroad), and all impressively fluent in English. But the most amazing moment for me was when one of the young women, completely covered except for her eyes, approached me and said in hesitant Hebrew “Shmi Reem. Ani rotzah lvaker b’yisrael”—“My name is Reem, I want to visit Israel.”
I had not been introduced as an Israeli, but they seemed to know about me, where I came from, and were as eager to engage me as I was to engage them. I offered hospitality in Jerusalem when the day would come that they could visit.
We were, of course, hosted in something of a VIP bubble and we were therefore not likely to have encountered anyone who would have seen our visit in a negative light. However, we were still pleasantly surprised by the warmth of our reception. The gentleman who greeted me on the plane was not unique. While sitting in the lounge of our hotel waiting for our transportation, several Saudis came up to us to thank us for our visit. We discovered a sense of excitement among the Saudis we encountered at the changes that are taking place in their country, with our visit being seen as confirmation of this transformation.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is not an open society, and human rights and freedoms are lacking. Some believe that these clear deficits should prevent collaboration with the Saudi authorities, and that interfaith partners are simply being used as fig leaves by an authoritarian regime to cover up its more problematic aspects. However, our sages teach us that if someone seeks to do the right thing, even for ulterior motives, we should encourage them, because moving in a positive direction creates its own dynamic. Furthermore, there is good reason to argue that if you are viewed as a constructive partner in certain respects, the chances of having a positive influence elsewhere are all the greater.
Of course, it behooves us not to ignore abuses, to call these out, and to do our best to encourage necessary changes. In this regard, I was naturally particularly concerned about Saudi textbooks. The AJC had examined 93 Saudi textbooks in 2003 and found anti-Jewish and anti-Christian references to be widespread. Some changes have been made since then, but there are still problematic references to non-Muslims and a very negative portrayal of Israel. Since my Saudi interlocutors saw me in a respectful and constructive light, there was much more willingness to listen to criticism. I was told that further changes are in progress, and I was encouraged to be in ongoing communication with those responsible for revising the textbooks.
The entry of Saudi Arabia into the interfaith world, as pioneered by the previous monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, is not seen by the kingdom’s authorities simply as being valuable for Saudi Arabia’s image, or as a tool of “soft power” to help win friends and influence people in the west. It is also seen by Saudi leaders as part and parcel of an internal transformation that is meant to change mindsets within the Kingdom, in order to prepare it for a new era.
Those we met in Riyadh viewed our visit as a testament to this change.
Rabbi David Rosen is the Jerusalem-based International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee