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Sharaka: Arabs from the Abraham Accords Nations Dispel Anti-Israel Propaganda and Denounce Muslim Extremism 

04/29/2024 08:44:47 AM

Apr29

Rabbi Amy Sapowith

On April 3 I attended a program sponsored by the JCRC at the Bender JCC in Rockville. The presenters were part of a group called Sharaka, which means partnership in Arabic. With the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 (https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/), four Arab nations (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan) committed to pursuing peace with Israel and to ending radicalization throughout the Mideast. Through interfaith and intercultural dialogue as well as through economic, academic and other exchanges, these Arab nations seek to normalize relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia was on the verge of joining the Accords when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7th. Contrary to the aims of Hamas, the name “Abraham Accords” intentionally makes explicit a fundamental truth about the Muslims, Christians and Jews who inhabit this part of the world; we share a common ancestor, Abraham, and we each have a legitimate claim to the region. 

The efforts of these Arab countries on behalf of normalization with Israel is truly one of the most compelling sources of hope in this dark moment of Mideast conflict. Even in Saudi Arabia, who is not yet a formal member of the accord, we can see cross cultural engagement, official diplomatic invitations, and their replacing antisemitic and antizionist curricula in the schools—though, apparently, they still don’t include Israel on the map—with curricula that emphasize our commonalities. Such changes, both sweeping and limited, are efforts meant to prepare their populations to abandon their animus toward Jews—and Christians for that matter—and to build a more tolerant society.  

The presentation I attended consisted of six Sharaka representatives who shared their stories.  Here is what I learned: Dan Feferman, Sharaka’s Executive Director, is an Israeli who attended American University some twenty years ago.  He explained that the organization is comprised of  Jewish Israelis, Christian Israelis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Moroccans, Arabs, and Muslims from beyond the Mideast. They visit each other’s countries, celebrate holidays together, and go on speaking tours, including college campuses. The group is well-received when they visit one another’s countries.  They also do work among their own people, trying to change the anti-Israel narrative, and redirecting the blame and criticism for war and violence away from Israel and the West and toward Hamas, Iran and others who are part of the Iran axis who espouse radical ideologies and who seek not only Israel’s destruction but theirs as well.  Feferman cited the Holocaust education program featured on their website as an example of this work. Orthodox Israeli rabbis and African American Imams spent time together in Morocco studying the Holocaust and ways to cultivate tolerance. 

Fatema Alhari spoke next. She is from Bahrain and her father is Saudi.  She was taught to believe that Israelis hated them because they’re Muslims and that she was supposed to hate Israelis because they are Jewish. When she took the opportunity to visit Israel, she was so welcomed by Israelis that her biases couldn’t hold up.  She shared all her positive experiences in Israel on social media and received many hateful responses. Upon her return home, the pushback continued. She became “the girl who went to Israel.” People accused her of being a Zionist spy and now part of the Israeli media. When Oct 7th happened, she lost a bit of hope, but then redoubled her efforts. She realized that since Palestinians can’t safely speak out against Hamas, she would be their voice. She lamented that Hamas has hijacked Islam. 

Loay Alshareef spoke next. He is currently living in Dubai, UAE, but was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. There, he was raised with the old curriculum which was very antisemitic and hate-filled. The state-run media furthered this. He said it’s not that way anymore. He told the story that when he was twenty-seven, he decided to go to France to study French. The abroad program included a home stay. Turns out his host family was Jewish. He tried to switch families but couldn’t. That family changed his views about Jews. He laughed that he learned more about Judaism and Hebrew than French. He celebrated Shabbat and Passover and all the holidays. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia, he shared his experience with his mom who doesn’t share the same views but who supported his journey. In 2017 he became more outspoken in favor of Jews and Israel. This was 3 years before the Abraham Accords. He tweeted in Arabic that he’d love to visit the capital of Israel, Jerusalem. He wanted to bring Arabs and Israelis together. He moved to the UAE and with the Abraham Accords he was able to do so. He too, like Fatema, received a warm welcome in Israel. He had made friends with an Israeli who was murdered at the Supernova music festival on Oct 7.  In its wake, he spoke out against the Hamas atrocities. For doing this he lost friends, but, he said, he also gained friends. He explained that he too was at one time an Israel-hater so he tells himself he should have patience with his people.

Loay went on to say, “Israel isn’t just 75 years old, it’s 3000 years old, the continuation of when Joshua conquered the area, of when David unified the tribes and moved the capital to Jerusalem, of when Solomon built the first temple. . . .”  Loay demonstrated a knowledge of Jewish history that would make any rabbi or Sunday school teacher proud.  He has recently tweeted to Israeli politician and scholar, Einat Wilf, “Looking forward to strengthening the bonds and friendships between our peoples and fighting hard for a genuine peace in the Middle East.” She responded, “Likewise Loay, your courageous words and commitment provide a glimmer of hope for a future of peace in our region.”

Fourth was Youssef Elazhari, a Moroccan.  Youssef described himself as a business entrepreneur. He has a marketing background and he has founded a start up. He began his presentation by proudly stating that the Moroccan constitution includes Jewish law not only Muslim law. Nevertheless, he explained, there is so much negative and false propaganda among the Moroccan people about Jews and Israelis, which he attributed to the antizionist influence of Al Jazeera and other cable TV outlets. One protection against this propaganda, he explained, was that the Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs falls under the auspices of the King who does not allow such extremism to reach the governmental level.  Youssef also visited Israel and, like his colleagues, felt very welcomed. After his return, he too received some backlash. For one, he lost his startup partner. But he personally regretted that he hadn’t known more about the real Israel and how much freedom te Muslims have there. He admitted that his people had championed the wrong people when they funded Hamas. He named radicalism is the real culprit for the ongoing strife.

Maryam, a Christian Lebanese Israeli, spoke fifth. She described herself as a minority within a minority with a story that is rarely heard. Her story goes back to the 1970’s when Palestinians represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) were expelled from Jordan for threatening King Hussein’s and the Jordanian parliament’s governance. Thousands of Palestinians were exiled to Lebanon where they began to sow chaos there as well. The PLO was fighting both Israel and the Christian Lebanese. The Lebanese people asked Israel to help them. In 2000 when Israel withdrew their forces from Lebanon and Hezbollah took over, she and her family had to flee or be killed. They fled to Israel for refuge.  She lives in a mixed city in Israel (Jews, Christians and Muslims). She says October 7th opened everyone’s eyes in a new way. They realized they’re all targets.  She emphasized that the Lebanese people don’t want war. They oppose Hezbollah. She insisted that even though they get no press, no air time, people there are raising their voices against Hezbollah and against extremism. 

The final presenter was Dr. Ahmed Alkhuzaie. Alkhuzaie is a researcher, political consultant, author, columnist, and lecturer here in D.C. but he’s originally from Bahrain. Bahrain is an island smaller than Manhattan, forty-five minutes off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. It is a financial center with a population of 5 million. Notably, it hosts the oldest indigenous Jewish communities in the region and he made that point that they don’t need security. 

 Like most researchers, Alkhuzaie joked, he doesn’t like to be wrong. Yet he admitted that he was proven to be massively wrong when he visited Israel. He had thought he understood Israel. He was taught that Israel was a military base and military state—but arriving in Israel and just seeing the trilingual street signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English—he knew he was wrong; this was no apartheid state.  He went on to state that there are more than 600 conflicts ongoing in the Mideast. If we were to take out Israel, would this solve anything? No. Israel is not the culprit. In Syria, more people were killed than in the post Oct 7 reprisal. Yet there were no protests anywhere in the world against the Syrian slaughter. There’s the slaughter by Arab militias of black Muslims in Sudan. No protests. It’s not that they don’t feel bad for civilians in Gaza but that we have to stop this hypocrisy. They are fighting over nonsense when there are many more dire problems to confront like the shortage of water. 

Alkhuzaie further pointed out that Oct 7th is a big test. The accords were formed in times of peace but were meant to endure during times of war.  He asserted that acts of war and terrorism have to be put down by everybody. 

In the Q & A that followed, someone asked where the Palestinians stood vis a vis the Accords? Sharaka presenters responded that where there is a lack of trust, Arabs like they can serve as intermediaries. They said that Palestinians fear being moderate so other countries like theirs need to support their moderate voices. 

In conclusion, Sharaka facilitates people of different faiths and ideas in Arab and North African countries and in Israel convening under one roof to share food and start conversations. It is about exposing, highlighting, and expanding the commonalities of the Abrahamic faiths. It is about debunking the false narrative about Israel. It is about decrying radicalization. This group of brave young Arabs and Israelis offer a ray of hope, a glimmer at the least, of a united front against radical forces that threaten not only Israel but our own and other western societies as well. 

Wed, May 29 2024 21 Iyar 5784