(From left) Rabbi Jill Perlman leads a conversation with Hayvi Bouzo, Omar Al Busaidy, Fatema Al Harbi, Dan Feferman and Chama Mechtaly of the NGO Sharaka at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
(From left) Rabbi Jill Perlman leads a conversation with Hayvi Bouzo, Omar Al Busaidy, Fatema Al Harbi, Dan Feferman and Chama Mechtaly of the NGO Sharaka at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Arab and Israeli delegates tout Abraham Accords on Bay Area visit

“The accords, in my humble opinion, are the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

That was the optimistic assessment shared by Dan Feferman, a former IDF intelligence officer and now the global affairs director of Sharaka, a nongovernmental organization, with an online and in-person audience gathered at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette on Monday.

Arabic for “partnership,” Sharaka launched last year with funding from Israeli and American donors. Its mission is to “realize the potential” of the Abraham Accords, the historic normalization agreements negotiated by the Trump administration between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Feferman, a former national security analyst for the IDF and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, is aware that peace between Israel and its neighbors has not been achieved. But since the wars of the 20th century, the diplomatic map of the region has shifted so dramatically — exemplified by the normalization agreements — that the old framing of the conflict as an intractable one between cultures, or even civilizations, has become moot.

“The countries of the region are, one by one, saying: enough,” he said.

The weather in the Bay Area was cold and rainy Monday evening but the mood inside Temple Isaiah was definitively sunny, as a few dozen congregants sat wearing masks in the main sanctuary and many more beamed in over Zoom. Six Sharaka delegates who had arrived from the Middle East just a day prior described how the historic agreements between Israel and four predominantly Muslim nations had begun to change the region in ways big and small.

They described Emirati college students studying at Israeli universities — in Hebrew — for the first time; Israeli journalist Michal Divon becoming the first to join a newsroom in Dubai; and Asma Alatwi of Bahrain launching the country’s first Hebrew-language academy and finding great demand for it.

Last month, J. reported on a pioneering kidney exchange between Emiratis and Israelis made possible by research at Stanford.

Then there is, of course, that favorite Israeli pastime — travel.

“You walk around Dubai, and you only hear Hebrew spoken,” joked Omar Al Busaidy, a young Emirati diplomat and CEO of Sharaka. “It’s crazy.”

The delegation was strikingly diverse. Al Busaidy is a Muslim Fulbright scholar and economic affairs liaison with the Emirati consulate in New York, who wore a pink kippah out of respect on the Isaiah bimah. He was flanked by Hayvi Bouzo, a Kurdish television and radio journalist who grew up in Damascus, and Fatema Al Harbi, a hijab-wearing Bahraini youth activist who told J. that she lost friends over her efforts at peacemaking with Israelis. Next to them was Feferman, an Israeli American who grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and Chama Mechtaly, a CEO and activist from Morocco who went to college at Brandeis and now jet-sets between New York City and Dubai.

Mechtaly was raised in a Muslim family and knew few Jews in the coastal city of Casablanca, but she was aware of the rich Jewish history of Morocco. She said her interest in peacemaking and diplomacy sparked in middle school, when her father told her that she had a Jewish backstory: His dad, her grandfather, was an indigenous Jew from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

Two views of the renovated Temple Beth-El in Casablanca, the city's flagship synagogue and the only one open to outside visitors. (SUE BARNETT)
Two views of the renovated Temple Beth-El in Casablanca, Morocco, the city’s flagship synagogue and the only one open to outside visitors. (Photo/Sue Barnett)

“Because of colonialism, and other ideologies that shaped the region over the last 100, 150 years,” her family’s “Jewish story” was lost, Mechtaly said. “I’ve been really committed to telling the stories of Jewish minorities and other minorities in the region to, in a sense, reclaim our pluralistic past.”

Established in the wake of the accords, Sharaka sends diverse delegations of Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians to Gulf states, Israel and beyond in order to “deepen mutual understanding” between historically siloed groups and build personal ties. While in Northern California the delegation planned appearances at San Jose State University, the California Commonwealth Club, the Sacramento Jewish Federation and Wornick Jewish Day School.

Some critics of the Abraham Accords — widely reported to have been negotiated by Jared Kushner — say that without making concessions to Palestinians on the questions of settlement expansion or the military occupation of the West Bank, Israel and its partners have further isolated them and harmed prospects for peace.

Indeed, this past May saw some of the worst fighting in years between Israel and Hamas, leading to hundreds of deaths and destruction in Gaza.

The delegates said Sharaka does not take an official position on what was frequently referred to as the “Palestinian issue” Monday. The Palestinian cause is widely supported in the Arab world; Israel’s agreement with the UAE, the first of the four, was conditioned on Israel suspending plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

“The UAE continues to support the Palestinians,” Al Busaidy said, mentioning vaccine shipments from the UAE to the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the pandemic, and a Palestinian pavilion present at Dubai’s ongoing Expo, which is similar to a World’s Fair. “We’ve always said we support both people.”

“I’m very deeply pro-Palestinian, and pro human rights,” Mechtaly said. “I see the need for advocacy for Palestinian rights — but I don’t see it as mutually exclusive. I think we are obliged to work in both directions simultaneously.”

Bouzo, the Syrian journalist, said she reserved hope that the accords might benefit Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects by changing the outlook in the region from a “militant,” eliminationist approach toward Israel to a more moderate one.

“You have countries in the region that are saying, you know what, this has not been working. Maybe we should not be supporting this status quo. It has not proven to be successful.”

Feferman highlighted the “pragmatism” of the Abraham Accord signatories. “I don’t think my friends here are becoming born-and-bred Zionists,” he said, gesturing lightheartedly to his colleagues.

“But there is a realization,” he added, “that when you are inclusive, regionally and domestically, it benefits your own society, and it benefits your own economy.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.