A young Jewish traveler on her journey to the Arab world

Washington University business student Danielle Rubin during a recent trip to United Arab Emirates.

BY DANIELLE RUBIN

Two weeks before the recent Egyptian uprising, I was traveling as the sole Jewish member of a university-sponsored educational trip in the Arab world.

While the prior January I had traveled to Israel with Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus on a Washington University Birthright trip, this year I chose to explore Israel’s Arab neighbors.

My visit to three of the seven United Arab Emirates exposed me not only to an entirely foreign world religion, but also to a country that seems to ignore the existence of the Jewish homeland – Israel. Beyond the stirring political unrest, I was faced with additional risks as a Jew embarking on this journey to the Muslim world. 

Before departing, I was warned to conceal my Judaism in various ways, ranging from simply covering my Israeli passport stamps, to even wearing a cross and “pretending” to be Christian.

These initial cautions not only scared me, but also astonished me. While I have always been aware of the existence of anti-Semitism in the world, there have been very few times in my life that I have ever considered concealing my Judaism – until this trip.

More alarming than the pre-departure advice, was a conversation I had on the airplane with a “local” Emirati couple (expatriates from Belgium and Canada), who were “awed” by my bravery and wished me “luck” entering the Arab country with Hebrew stickers on the back of my passport. However, with a rapid heart and sweaty palms, I successfully passed through customs in the Dubai airport.

From then on, things seemed to be less frightening and similarly stress-free; I found the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah to be extremely diverse and relatively tolerant – at least of Western style and culture.

In fact, there were many facets of this Middle Eastern experience that were reminiscent of my student trip to Israel last winter. The desert climate and terrain were not too dissimilar from the south of Israel; many of the restaurants served Middle Eastern fare similar to the food served in Israel; and even the souvenirs in the local souk ranging from Hamsahs, to gold, to woven scarfs, were reminiscent of purchases I had made in the shuk and markets in Israel.

However, throughout the trip, my religion seemed to be on the tip of my tongue and in the back of my mind. Conflictingly, there were many times when I desired to point out to our lecturers similarities and differences between Islamic traditions and Emirati culture, and those of Judaism and Israel, but I feared such comments would not be welcome.

When claims were made about tourism to Middle Eastern Arab countries, or about economic development in this part of the world, Israel was conveniently never mentioned. Not only did I want to learn more about Israel’s place in these discussions, but I also wanted to inform my instructors, and correct misperceptions of my peers – but again I felt it best to remain quiet.

Most surprising to me was that the only recognizable anti-Semitism I encountered was during my time spent with the Emirati youth. Whether it was the university students “boycott” of Starbucks because of supposed Jewish ties, or simply a discussion of marriage practices with an American born Emirati, I was shocked that youth growing up during such progressive times, in such a tolerant city, could still possess such strong opinions and biases.

Therefore, while I did not feel that my religion posed any danger, nor would I discourage any other Jew from visiting these Arab countries, I do believe my Judaism provided a perspective for me different from the other students on my trip.

As exciting as it was seeing the world’s tallest skyscraper, largest shopping center, and most incredible real estate developments, this trip also made me sad.

It was frustrating to observe that two countries and peoples, so brilliant, progressive and similar in so many ways, cannot recognize and support each other. From what I know about Judaism and Israel, and from what I recently discovered about Islam and the UAE, I know there is much that could be learned and shared between the two. However, this trip primarily helped me to appreciate the religious freedom and tolerance I am allowed in the United States. This trip has made me a smarter and more understanding Jew, American, and student; and was definitely worth the “risk.”

This commentary is excerpted from “Blogging from Dubai” by Danielle Rubin, an undergraduate pursuing a business degree at Washington University in St. Louis.

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