A Long and Winding Road Toward Peace—and an Unfinished Personal Journey | Opinion

In 1993, shortly after the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) opened our Museum of Tolerance, I sat with my dear friend Ehud Yaari in Jerusalem, bemoaning the pernicious combination of ignorance and anti-Semitic stereotyping in the Arab and Muslim worlds. "So why don't you do something about it", Yaari replied. "Go and meet with them!"

Yaari was already famous for amazing breakthrough interviews with Egypt's Sadat, Morocco's King Hassan and, of course, King Hussein of Jordan—before there was any talk of diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

His advice was simple. The journey since has been anything but.

Nonetheless, Yaari turned out to be right. The only way to break down stereotypes about Jews was to show up at the doors of leaders whose border officials were allergic to any passports that had been stamped in Israel.

My visionary boss and mentor, Simon Wiesenthal Center Founder and CEO Rabbi Marvin Hier, launched our ad hoc outreach in Cairo, where we urged the late grand mufti and head of Al-Aqsa University to meet with the Israeli chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, to promote better interfaith relations. That meeting took place and led to the Alexandria Declaration, which served as a baseline for future interfaith efforts. Sadly, our other request for a fatwa against suicide bombing did not yield the clear, hoped-for result.

Among my most notable and fruitful meetings was a lunch at the home of Indonesian President Wahid. I learned that the leader of the world's largest Muslim nation was a Bible scholar and a philo-Semite. That meeting led to a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Wahid and Rabbi Lau that denounced Iran's Holocaust denialism, and also helped lead to an international conference in Bali of "Religions Against Terrorism," where Sol Teichman became the only Holocaust survivor to recount his personal story of suffering and survival before a stunned audience of Muslim and Hindu teachers and politicians. Shortly thereafter, the SWC hosted the first delegation of religious Muslims from Indonesia to visit Israel, which included praying twice at Al-Aqsa, dancing with rabbis and students at a Chanukah celebration at a Yeshiva in Kiryat Shemona and Shabbat dinner with my children and Israeli grandchildren. The delegation's chief would tell me, at the end of the visit: "We came here assuming there was a religious conflict, but it turns out that there is a political dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. We see that religious rights are protected for all."

Over the years, we would host Surin Pitsuwan, a Muslim, former Thai leader and secretary general of the ASEAN group of Asian nations. Over the last decade, there would be business, political and cultural figures from the Gulf—even a group from Kuwait. And the day after President Trump announced he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, 24 religious leaders from Bahrain arrived in Jerusalem as our guests. They prayed at the appropriate mosque or church, and danced with Chabad in the Mamilla Mall before lighting the first Chanukah candle in the shadow of the walls of the Old City!

A special word of praise and thanks to Bahrain's courageous King Hamad. When we met with Rabbi Hier in his palace in 2017, Rabbi Hier broke protocol and broke the ice by firmly grabbing the king's hand and chanting in Hebrew the blessing for royalty. The king reportedly would tell his government leaders: "That was the first time someone came to me not to ask for something, but to give me a blessing." When I asked the king what would he think about a Wiesenthal Center invitation for his citizens to visit Israel, he responded in front of his entire cabinet: "My citizens can travel anywhere." And soon they would.

Old City Jerusalem
Old City Jerusalem EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

But King Hamad went further. He wrote the Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, wherein an Arab head of state declared that everyone should be free to pray as he sees fit, and even be free not to pray at all.

That went beyond stereotypes. The Declaration, first read by his son Sheikh Nasser before 400 religious leaders in Los Angeles, was a taboo-buster.

Indeed, Bahrain protects and venerates all religions, and is home to an active Hindu temple. Rabbi Hier and I were honored to participate in the first minyan in decades at Bahrain's synagogue during the historic Bahrain Global Economic Conference that sought to help set the stage for Israeli-Palestinian peace. To ensure closer interfaith ties, King Hamad has launched the Bahrain Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, led by respected Sheikh Khalid Bin Khalifa.

All of this, along with the UAE's invitation to Pope Francis to lead an open-air mass, have helped accelerate the pace of change.

Many of these (not so-)small breakthroughs happened because we reached out to break their stereotypes by first breaking our own.

The speed of change between the Gulf states and the Jewish state will increase for three reasons. First, social media, which has destroyed the stranglehold of information about Jews, Judaism and Israel forever. Second, Iran: If the UAE-Israel deal had been an arranged marriage, then the Ayatollah Khamenei could demand Shidduch Gelt (a financial gift traditionally given in Judaism to the matchmaker). Third, economics: More tourism for the UAE and more open access for Middle East investors to the Start-up Nation's dynamic start-ups.

Of course, we hope that Bahrain will be next, followed by Oman and (please G-d) soon, Saudi Arabia. Another Arab nation in Africa is waiting in the wings. They can look to the mutually beneficial relationship between Azerbaijan—a 96 percent Muslim nation—and the Jewish state as a role model for what's possible.

As for the Palestinian Authority and its global anti-Semitic campaigners, please take note: The peace train has left the station. If you don't have the guts to get on board, get out of the way and let Palestinian peace-seekers take over.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.