gulf goals

Ahead of D.C. visit, Bahrain’s undersecretary for political affairs engages New York Jewish leaders

Sheikh Abdulla Al Khalifa’s meetings were part of a broader ‘warm peace’ strategy

Courtesy

Bahraini Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Sheikh Abdulla Al Khalifa

Bahraini Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Sheikh Abdulla Al Khalifa met with Jewish leaders in New York on Monday and Tuesday as part of the Gulf nation’s efforts to facilitate people-to-people engagement with the Jewish community following last year’s Abraham Accords.

The series of meetings, which included sit-downs — a mix of virtual and in-person, owing to both COVID-19 precautions and logistical challenges — with New York-area rabbis, the leadership of UJA-Federation of New York, Yeshiva University students and faculty and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saw Al Khalifa share his government’s hope for what Bahraini and Emirati leaders have described as a “warm peace,” both with Israel and the global Jewish community. 

“I think…that engaging with American Jewry, with world Jewry, is part of the ‘warm peace’ strategy,” Al Khalifa, who holds Bahrain’s Israel portfolio and became the highest-ranking Bahraini to visit the Jewish state last August, told JI in an interview in a midtown Manhattan hotel on Tuesday morning in between meetings. “It’s not ‘the undersecretary is here in passing.’”

The meetings left an impression on attendees, many of whom had not previously had deep engagement with Bahrain but were optimistic about future people-to-people efforts.

“I think it showed an interest in a very low-level, grassroots manner, which you typically don’t see. I think typically countries make peace and everyone moves on,” Rabbi Daniel Sherman of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side, told JI. “I think there was a real effort for a grassroots relationship for Jews and the Bahraini community and obviously Israel in a much more authentic way.”

UJA-Federation CEO Eric Goldstein said the “warm peace” concept “requires not simply country-to-country sorts of activities but very much people-to-people initiatives from an economic perspective, from an interfaith religious dialogue perspective, from student-to-student perspective, that it requires the communities to learn each other. And I think he sees not only Israelis, but American Jews, as critical to that process.”

Following his meetings in New York, Al Khalifa will travel to Washington, where he will spend the remainder of the week meeting with government officials.

Al Khalifa told JI the Bahraini government was “very grateful for the Trump administration for their support” in facilitating the Abraham Accords, and “also very much appreciative to the Biden administration, who will continue to support Bahrain and developing the ties with Israel.” He added that “the work is ongoing institutionally across the Biden administration to support Bahrain and understand all the necessary enhancements to move forward.”

Speaking on Tuesday to The Jewish Federations of North America, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that the signatories to the Abraham Accords are working to help Israel establish relations with other Arab countries in the region. 

Al Khalifa was hopeful that the success of the Abraham Accords would encourage other Arab countries to enter into similar agreements. 

“The entire world is looking today and asking… ‘What are the fruits that have been built by countries and people of the region?’” Al Khalifa said. “I think, through the processes that we have undertaken through the past 12 months with our counterparts in Israel, [it] is very much encouraging and [is] setting the foundation for cooperation on many different fronts.”

Now, he said, it is up to the private sector “to enhance the trade and investment and to benefit from the opportunities that have been put forward.”

The Bahraini government’s efforts to reach out to the Jewish community come as the Gulf nation is working to build ties between Bahrainis and Israelis. A Bahraini delegation of social media influencers, organized by Sharaka, a cooperative effort facilitating Gulf-Israeli ties, is in the Jewish state this week.

The group visited Yad Vashem on Tuesday, a day after the museum submitted new Arabic-language Holocaust education guidelines to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The organization’s working definition of antisemitism has been adopted by dozens of countries — a majority of them in Europe — as well as the U.S. 

No Arab nation has officially adopted the definition, which gives examples of antisemitism that include accusing Jews of exaggerating the Holocaust and equates anti-Israeli rhetoric with antisemitism. Al Khalifa told JI the government was “looking into that.”

As coronavirus-related restrictions loosen, both community leaders and Al Khalifa hoped that travel between the UAE, Israel, Bahrain and the U.S. would facilitate more cross-cultural interactions. On Tuesday, Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is currently in Abu Dhabi, announced that visa restrictions between Israel and the UAE would be lifted this coming Sunday.

“It’s like when Fleetwood Mac goes on tour, and everyone needs to get to 22 concerts,” Sherman said in jest. “I feel like it’s going to be going to every Arab country.”

“Both the Kingdom of Bahrain and UAE seem so intent on creating warm relationships to make this real across sectors in ways that have the ability to transform the Middle East,” Goldstein added. “And given our interest in that area of the world, it is incredibly exciting.”

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