What precedes Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia
American Jews and Saudi Muslims have sought an understanding of each other to lay groundwork for building peace in the Middle East.
In a couple of weeks, President Joe Biden plans a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with two main aims: warm up ties between the oil-rich kingdom and an oil-distressed United States, and help pave the way for an expected Saudi recognition of Israel. Yet the warm-up has required more than official diplomacy and a difficult recalculation of shared interests between the two countries.
Just as important have been breakthroughs in religious ties between the birthplace of Islam and American Jews. In a June visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, for example, a group of 13 Jewish leaders from New York met with Saudi leaders in an interfaith dialogue on the similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam.
“The goal of the trip, as expressed by our hosts: ‘We need to learn about you, and you need to learn about us,’” said Eric Goldstein, a prominent Jewish leader in New York.
In particular, the two sides discussed the Charter of Makkah, a declaration on religious tolerance adopted in 2019 by Muslim leaders from 139 countries. The document’s first principle reads: “All people, regardless of their different ethnicities, races, and nationalities, are equal under God.”
The new Saudi openness to both American and Israeli Jews reflects a profound move to shed the country’s past antisemitism, curtail its harsh teachings of Islam, and transform itself for a post-oil, Western-leaning future. Saudi textbooks, for instance, have been expunged of antisemitic tropes. Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, says he wants his country to be “open to the world and tolerant of other faiths.”
Normalizing ties with Jews must “go beyond governments, especially when you’re dealing with a sentiment that’s been embedded,” says Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. special envoy for combating and monitoring antisemitism.
In May, the Saudi regime hosted the first multifaith conference inside the country. Titled “Common Values Among the Followers of Religions,” the gathering included a large Jewish delegation. If Mr. Biden’s trip is a success, it may be due in large part to a new search for a common command for love and equality that binds the world’s main religions.