How did an ultra-Orthodox Jew became a sensation on the streets of Muslim Dubai? | Opinion
It was understandable that Joseph Kohan, who looked like a traditional religious Jew - a full beard and a kippah on his head as a sign of humility - looked curious and indiscreet as he walked through a busy shopping mall in Dubai one evening.
Just a few months earlier, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had reached a historic peace agreement. The presence of an attentive Jew on the streets of a Muslim country was not only a novelty, but a true miracle.
Two local men in typical white robes stopped him to have their pictures taken together, a repeated request he had gotten used to during his visit. They wished him Shalom and expressed their joy at his visit. They violently shook his hand and repeated their friendship.
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"This is the new Middle East," wrote Kohan when he posted a powerful photo on Facebook of a Jew and an Arab holding hands and smiling, leaving old animosities between ancestors.
I go to an open mall in Dubai, this man and his friend came up to me (have never seen them) and blessed me with "Shalom ...
Posted by Joseph Dov Kohan on Wednesday 9th Dec 2020
His journey shows how the simple human presence - as they say, showing your face - can gather enough strength to tear down the ideological or sectarian walls of prejudice, intolerance and ignorance.
A childhood friend, Kohan, is a Venezuelan Israeli who lives 30 minutes from Jerusalem with his wife and six children. As an ultra-Orthodox Jew, he never expected to visit a country ruled by Sharia law. But life is full of surprises and he represented an Israeli company at one of the largest technology fairs in the Middle East, GITEX 2020.
He wasn't the only Jew to visit him, but he was most identifiable because of his religious clothing. Against the backdrop of the peace treaty, it became a sensation at the fair and in the open air, arousing the interest of the media and people on the street.
"My feeling is that I have become one of the actors in the peace process and that it gave me a bigger role to be there than one of the first to represent Israel and to be seen as Orthodox," said Kohan, 46.
"Real peace is made by people," he told me. “The political signatures will come later. It is important that the population can respect one another. "
Progress Towards Peace
With pressure from the US, understanding in the Middle East has improved. President Trump presided over agreements that normalized relations between Israel and four Arab states - the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and, more recently, Morocco, where its Jewish presence dates back more than 2,000 years.
Kramer Electronics, manufacturer of video and audio installation products that Kohan works for, received several offers from dealers in Dubai looking to represent them in the affluent UAE. The distributor who won the deal had reserved kiosk space at GITEX and handed over the entire space to its new Israeli partner.
Kohan, known to his friends as Yossy, had to hurry. As Head of Technical Marketing, he was selected for the Commercial Pioneer Mission. He had less than three weeks to organize the company's participation in the fair. This process typically takes three months of planning.
And there was another obstacle. His Venezuelan passport, like that of thousands of other Venezuelans around the world, had expired. The Venezuelan government broke off diplomatic relations with Israel 10 years ago. It was not clear if he could enter the UAE with an Israeli passport as the travel agreement comes into effect later this month. Even so, Dubai Airport opened its doors and didn't stamp his entry on his passport, he said.
“Following the signing of the peace accords, people in both countries saw many expressions of mutual respect on social media. It was unbelievable, but I never thought I would be involved, ”Kohan said, adding that he never felt unsafe - something unusual in a world where the beasts of anti-Semitism and xenophobia are rampant are.
The signs of acceptance and hospitality showed up from the start - and not just because the hosts were offering kosher food. Just before sunset, attentive Jews pray Mincha, the afternoon prayer, to take a step back from the hectic pace of everyday life and to communicate with a higher power.
Kohan often represents his company at business shows around the world and always manages to find a quiet corner to pray. This time he was taken to the administrative offices of the Dubai World Trade Center owned by the rulers of the UAE, where two young women in traditional black abayas reserved a special room for visiting Jews.
"We were amazed at the understanding of the others who were shown there," he said.
Joseph Kohan, an Orthodox Jew, caused a sensation during a mass in Dubai, an Islamic country with which Israel signed a historic peace agreement.
During the fair, Kohan recalled, government officials as well as business people and local residents kept coming up to him. Not just to talk about business, but to get to know him as a person.
When they praised his presence at the fair, they placed their right hands over their hearts, a gesture of sincerity that their words carried.
Yossy grew up in a secular Jewish family in Caracas, his mother of Russian descent and his father from Argentina. With no prior religious instruction, he began studying and practicing traditional Judaism as a teenager, a fine time of faith we shared after studying in a yeshiva across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The author Daniel Shoer Roth with his friend Joseph Kohan in Caracas, Venezuela in the early 1990s.
When he tried to delve deeper into the richness of the Hebrew Scriptures, he immigrated to the Holy Land in 1995. Two years later, I joined the Venezuelan diaspora when I came to the United States for postgraduate studies.
After sharing his beliefs openly and in peace in Dubai, Kohan said he had learned a lesson. "I learned that John Lennon was wrong," he said. "You do not make peace by eliminating people's beliefs or national pride. Peace is made by people who are different, and it is not necessary to erase our origins in order to achieve peace."
Kohan left Dubai before the end of the fair to join his family for Hanukkah. This is the heroic revolt of the Maccabees against efforts to conquer the Hebrew people and wipe out their culture more than 2,000 years ago. Vacation teaches us that we cannot allow others to control our free will, dictate what we have to do or what we have to be.
As long as mutual respect is maintained, full authenticity is the best component to build bridges of tolerance and acceptance.
Daniel Shoer Roth, a growing audience editor for el Nuevo Herald, is the author of the Archdiocese Authorized Biography of the late Bishop of Miami, Agustín A. Román. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
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