The following opinion article by World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder was published on the front page of the largest English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, the Arab News, marking the first time that a media outlet in Saudi Arabia has published an opinion article by a Jewish leader.
A revolution is taking place in the Arab world that is quietly moving the Middle East’s tectonic plates in ways no one ever thought possible. The old broadside attacks against Israelis by almost all Arab countries have quietly dissipated and the evidence is as clear as the nightly television entertainment shows that people are watching.
Muslims worldwide are now observing Ramadan. After fasting all day, families gather after sunset for the traditional iftar meal, and often sit down to watch television together. It’s a time when Arab channels showcase their most popular programs.
In sharp contrast to too many other channels, the Saudi satellite network MBC has challenged old taboos with a surprisingly positive depiction of Jews. “Um Haroun” is a fictionalized recounting of a Bahraini-Jewish woman who played a significant role in developing Bahraini midwifery. The series is set in an unnamed Arabian Gulf town in the 1940s, and it shows how Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together as one community in relative harmony.
The show appears on Saudi television, and production involves Emiratis and Bahrainis. One of the consultants is a politician as well as the representative of the Bahraini Jewish community at the World Jewish Congress. This reality embodies huge progress and change on an international scale.
Proponents have highlighted the show as an embodiment of tolerance, while critics have attacked it as an example of normalization of relations with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause. What is more immediately apparent, and was once unheard of, is the basic humanity with which Jews are now shown. In the Middle East, such sensitivity has long been in short supply. Textbooks have long copied some of the worst age-old anti-Semitic tropes, claiming the goal of Zionism was a global Jewish government that would control the world. That is why this television series is so groundbreaking as it is trying to turn a new page in Muslim-Jewish relations.
As president of the World Jewish Congress, I have traveled to many Muslim countries to meet heads of state, members of government, workers, journalists, and students. Not every conversation has been easy and sometimes we have encountered prejudice, but mostly we were able to have a constructive dialogue. One of the most popular references we heard were the times described in “Um Haroun,” when Muslims and Jews lived together as neighbors and friends. It’s amazing that a TV show has led to a constructive dialogue and bridge building.
Last Jan. 27, I stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau and implored world leaders to not be silent and or complicit in hatred, as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp. Earlier that month, Mohammed Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Makkah-based Muslim World League, led a delegation of Muslim leaders from more than two dozen countries to the same upsetting ground. The Moroccan minister of religious affairs, Ahmed Toufik, is now leading a project to build a museum for the heritage of life in the Atlas region, and one part of that project is dedicated to the Jewish culture.
Perhaps most encouragingly is what is coming out of the highest political levels as well, with the Saudi monarchy that holds tremendous sway across the Muslim world as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam.
In February, King Salman stated that it was a religious duty for Islam’s adherents and Jewish people to know one another and cooperate for the good of society. This Ramadan, through “Um Haroun,” we see that the region is looking back to a neighborly era, a time when Jews were friends, not foes. This reality embodies amazing progress and change.
Last fall, I spoke on human fraternity at the Gregorian University, which is connected to the Vatican. I told the audience, made up mostly of cardinals and bishops, that the prophecy of the ancient prophets is peace. The prophecy of Abraham is peace. The prophecy of Jesus is peace. The prophecy of Muhammad is peace. Humankind’s most fervent yearning is the yearning for peace.
This new interconnected era in which we now find ourselves has turned our world into a small village where peace is possible. In the Middle East, which has lived with too much violence for far too long, peace is within reach and it could be starting with, of all things, a television show. Ramadan Kareem.