Monday, April 12, 2021

  • Monday, April 12, 2021
  • Elder of Ziyon


Makor Rishon had a lengthy interview with  Rabbi Yaakov Israel Herzog, 44, who lives in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem - and who calls himself Saudi Arabia's de facto chief rabbi.

He has had business ties with the Saudis for 25 years, as part of his private business exporting vegetable seeds from Israel.

"When I started my relationship with the Saudis, the situation there towards Israel and the Jews was different," Herzog told the newspaper.  "They were deeply involved in the Palestinian issue, and it drew a lot of hostility. They were allergic to Jews. ...Today, Jews can enter the country without a problem."

The only exception is the ban on non-Muslims going to Mecca, although Herzog says that it is easy enough to disguise oneself as a Muslim if one wants to go there.

According to Rabbi Herzog, "Jewish history in Saudi Arabia before 1932 was very rich. Jews lived mainly in the north, and some on the border with Egypt, an area that historically is 'Midian' mentioned in the Torah. There are remnants of Judaism all over the country. There were synagogues, mikvahs and lots of history. Half a year ago, for example, in one of the northern cities where Jews lived, a man dug a house and discovered an ancient synagogue. Of course, they guarded it and did not desecrate it. "

With the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Jews were given two options: convert to Islam or cross the border into Yemen. Jewish life in the area seemed to be over.

Now, most of the Jews in Saudi Arabia are there on business or as part of the US Army and their families, as well as diplomatic staff from countries like the US and France.

"Today I am in touch with hundreds of Jews across Saudi Arabia, also from my home in Israel. I answer questions from Jewish soldiers, and even give them couple counseling in Zoom. I hope to move to Saudi Arabia this September with my family. Until now I did not have to be there all the time, but now I do. I have had some interfaith meetings, and I have dialogue with the Imam Council," he says.

Although he is associated with Chabad, he is not an official Chabad emissary, preferring to make his own decisions, although he says that he definitely is inspired by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.

"If you ask the American embassy if there is a rabbi for the country, you will be referred to me. All government institutions know me. If people want to convert, I direct them to be good Muslims and tell them 'I will not make you a Jew, it will not happen. If you want to know what is written in the Torah, you will read it in Arabic, and it can help you to be a better Muslim.' "

Are there descendants of Jews living in Saudi Arabia?

"There are a lot of them who are like marranos who have integrated into society. There are Jews, but they do not know that they are Jews. You can identify them by facial features or customs that were in their families. You hear about families who would light Shabbat candles, for example."

As far as communal prayer is concerned, Rabbi Herzog says, "I personally have permission from the authorities to hold prayers for up to 120 people. The next step is to get space for a synagogue, and I believe that in two or three years the Saudis will build on their own initiative a magnificent Jewish center like the United Arab Emirates has."

Rabbi Herzog is a certified mohel and has performed a circumcision as well as several bar mitzvah celebrations for American Jews living in Saudi Arabia. 

There is no kosher food available in Saudi Arabia, but Herzog eats fish when he goes. He says he is n contact with a slaughterhouse with the desire to be able not only to prepare kosher meat and poultry, but to be able to export it to other Gulf countries.  

I only found out about this article from Iran's Al Alam, which said that the existence of a rabbi in Saudi Arabia is controversial. Any hint of closer cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia causes alarm in Iran, even though Rabbi Herzog stresses that he has nothing to do with the Israeli government and is not interested in politics.







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