In a new playground in Dubai, Israelis find parties, Jewish rituals

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – This was a scene that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. As Emiratis watches in flowing white robes and headdresses, the Israeli bride and groom are hoisted onto the shoulders of skull caretakers and carried to the dance floor, where dozens join the crowd swinging and singing in Hebrew.

Noemie Azerad and Simon David Benhamou not only threw a somewhat normal wedding in the midst of a pandemic that closed their country and devastated the world. They reveled in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which – like most of the Arab world – had been outside Israel’s passport holders for decades.

The pair were among tens of thousands of Israelis who flocked to the United Arab Emirates in December after the two countries normalized ties in a breakthrough by the US.

Israel’s latest virus-induced exclusion, which began earlier this week, has temporarily cooled the travel fever. But Israelis with tight holiday plans, now sitting at home, hope that vaccination campaigns will help curb the outbreak and make Dubai travel possible again soon.

The lure of Dubai, the UAE’s skyscraper-laden commercial hub with sandy beaches and marbled shopping malls, is already powerful. Numerous Israeli tourists, seeking relief and relief from month-long virus restrictions and not bothered by the government’s warnings of possible Iranian attacks in the region, celebrated weddings, bar mitzvahs and the eight-day Hanukkah Jewish festival with large gatherings banned at home.

“I expected to feel really uncomfortable here,” said the 25-year-old Israeli bride from the hotel’s ballroom, bathed in the glow of Dubai’s glittering skyline. But all of her chosen wedding destinations announced strict restrictions on the gatherings. the spread of the virus. Dubai holds parties at 200.

The choice was not clear to delay the wedding.

“I feel it’s Tel Aviv,” Azerad said of Dubai. “I hear Hebrew everywhere.”

Her French father, Igal Azerad, said he always hid his skullcap in his pocket for fear of assault in the streets of Paris. But in Dubai, the sight of his kippah asks: ‘Emiratis must come up and say’ Shalom ‘to me,’ he said.

The dizzying pace of normalization stunned even the skeptics. Despite the countries’ long secret ties, the UAE viewed Israel as a political pariah during the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The modest Jewish expatriate community in the federation of seven sheikhdoms kept a low profile and prayed in an unmarked villa.

But the arrival of 70,000 Israeli tourists, according to travel agents’ estimates, on 15 uninterrupted daily flights in December has all changed. A 3.5-meter Hanukkah chandelier appears beneath the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, where Jews gather to light candles and take selfies while festive Hebrew songs are shot over the massive fountain in the city center.

The Jewish community’s cute Sabbath meal on Friday night turned into two hollow banquet halls with four seats for Israeli visitors. “Made in Israel” signs appear in Dubai’s chain grocery and liquor stores, which now sell wine from the Israeli-anchored Golan Heights. Wine, honey and tahini from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank will be on the shelves in the coming weeks and will be called a branded product of Israel according to Israel.

On social media, a trip to the UAE has become a status symbol for Israelis displaying photos of themselves in Dubai. Dozens of hotels across the city say they have booked thousands of Israeli travelers and hosted a series of Israeli business conferences, holiday parties and day-long weddings. Israeli singers have planned concerts for the spring. Kosher catering companies from the UK and elsewhere have set up shop in the UAE. According to Rabbi Mendel Duchman, who helps run the Jewish community center in the country, land is being broken up at the country’s first Jewish cemetery and ritual bath, known as a mikvah.

“It was incredible, it was a tsunami,” said Mark Feldman, head of Jerusalem-based Ziontours, noting the contrast with Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan. “Dubai has become an oasis for Israelis in the midst of the pandemic.”

Weeks in December, Rwanda and the Seychelles were the only other countries where Israelis could land without a 14-day home quarantine. Dubai has remained open to business and tourism, with few restrictions beyond the social distance and masks outside. Guests at weddings and other gatherings often do not wear masks.

Even as Israelis wave the warm embrace of their armies, very little has been heard about the UAE’s 180-degree shift of its 1 million citizens, who receive free housing, education and health care and tend to isolate themselves from their country’s large expatriate population. The hereditary rulers of the disease suppress disagreement. Even dramatic political decisions are made with consent.

Ahmed al-Mansoori, a museum director of the Emirates who welcomed dozens of Israeli visitors to his collection of ancient maps and manuscripts, including a fourth-century Torah book, acknowledged some cultural misunderstandings among populations not yet had to do with each other. ”

“Every Emirati has their own psychology about this,” he said when asked about the policy reversal that Palestinians see as a betrayal of their pursuit of a state in countries occupied by Israel.

But he noted that Dubai, a city driven by millions of workers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, easily absorbs waves of expats, including from countries locked up in bitter conflict with each other.

Despite initial concerns about Iranian threats and diplomatic outbursts due to the misconduct of tourists, travel agents say there was only slight heel. A few Israeli tourists got stuck in sand dunes while riding four-wheeled motorcycles, which required an extensive rescue mission by a government helicopter, said Yaniv Stainberg, owner of Privilege Tourism. Some were arrested for taking photos at a mosque, he added. Others were reprimanded for kissing in public, a crime punishable by imprisonment under the UAE’s Islamic legal system.

But as the virus rose in Israel and spread photos of awkward parties in Dubai on social media, Israel’s health and foreign ministries allegedly battled over whether the UAE would be classified as a high-infection zone, which would be quarantined. required on arrival in Israel and may harm the countries’ new courtship.

Within days, the point was difficult. Israel entered its third exclusion on Sunday. The newlyweds, Azerad and Benhamou, were then back home.

“COVID has really hindered us. It is a pity for all the new friends in the region that we want to meet,” said Eliav Benjamin, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, referring to Israel’s other recent normalization agreements with Bahrain. , Sudan and Morocco. “However, vaccines will be a game changer.”