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NYU rabbi faces campus backlash over UAE posting

  • James Reinl
  • 27 May 2019

As the first chief rabbi for Jewish migrants in the United Arab Emirates, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna could be used to smooth over its poor human rights record, say critics.

Executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU Rabbi Yehuda Sarna attend the Shorts Program: City Limits during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival at AMC Loews Village 7 on April 17, 2014 in New York City. ( Getty Images )

NEW YORK — The appointment of New York University (NYU) chaplain, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, as the first chief rabbi for Jewish migrants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has drawn criticism, with some students saying he is helping to obscure the Gulf nation’s weak human rights record.

This month, Rabbi Sarna revealed details about the new post, which will see him travel several times each year to Dubai, where the Jewish Council of the Emirates holds Friday night Shabbat and other services in a discreet villa.

Critics say the UAE is using Rabbi Sarna and NYU, which runs a lucrative satellite campus in the capital Abu Dhabi, to bolster its ties with Israel and talk up its multi-faith credentials when it is really a human rights abuser behind war crimes in Yemen.

“NYU has an increasingly enmeshed and intertwined relationship with the UAE,” Lola Jusidman, 24, a Jewish-American politics student and founding member of NYU For Yemen, a campus activist group, told TRT World.

“The UAE offers NYU all these resources but is buying our silence to promote itself as a champion of religious tolerance and obscure the real nature of its government, which bombs, tortures and starves innocent Yemeni civilians.

“This is a moral question for the rabbi. If he’s going to be silent about Yemen and not use his position to take a stand, then the benefit of his appointment will be insignificant compared to the harm it causes.”

Rabbi Sarna, Executive Director of NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, who spoke at Ramadan celebrations at the UAE’s UN mission this month, declined TRT World’s request for an interview. NYU also declined to comment.

The rabbi’s appointment was announced earlier this month at a panel talk on religious tolerance in the UAE, which was co-hosted by the UAE embassy and the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League in Washington.

Relations between the Gulf and Israel, together with its lobbying apparatus in the United States, have warmed in recent years and accelerated under the Trump administration amid shared concerns over Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Meanwhile, the UAE plays a major role in Yemen’s war as part of a US-backed, Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in 2015 against the Houthi rebel movement to restore the UN-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Sunjeev Bery, director of Freedom Forward, which campaigns for Washington to cut ties with foreign autocrats, said the rabbi “risks being used by a brutal monarchy that is perfectly willing to work with” terrorists in its Yemen campaign.

“The UAE is likely using the strategy of faith-washing to hide its human rights atrocities behind a wall of interfaith public relations,” Bery told TRT World.

“The question is whether or not Rabbi Sarna's vision of faith and religion embraces human rights or remains silent in the face of the UAE’s brutality.”

The appointment comes as the UAE celebrates a ‘Year of Tolerance’, which saw Pope Francis make the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula in January, leading a mass of more than 120,000 worshipers in Abu Dhabi.

The Emirates is home to Christians, Jews, Hindus and others and sells itself as a beacon of interfaith harmony, in contrast to other parts of the mostly-Muslim Middle East, where religious minorities can face persecution and violence.

The Jewish centre in Dubai caters to some 150 members, ranging from students to jet-set executives, according to local reports. The discreet premises in a quiet neighbourhood features a prayer room and a kosher kitchen.

Michael Low, 20, a Jewish-American NYU student of public policy, studied in Abu Dhabi in January and visited the Jewish centre in Dubai, where he says he enjoyed celebrating his faith within earshot of the Muslim congregants of a nearby mosque.

“I felt safer in the villa in Dubai than I do in many synagogues in the US,” Low, Vice President of the NYU campus group Realize Israel, told TRT World, referencing a spate of anti-Jewish attacks in America.

“The UAE wants to show that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is and that they are a tolerant society. They are opening their doors in the build-up to hosting Expo 2020.”

Ezra Cohen, 21, a Jewish-American business and politics student and President of Realize Israel, downplayed the UAE’s controversial role in Yemen and spoke favourably of warming Gulf-Israel ties.

“No country is perfect, but that does not mean we shouldn’t promote Jewish life in these countries. Rabbi Sanaa is going to open up some dialogue about these human rights abuses,” Cohen told TRT World.

“The improved relations with Israel are 100 percent good. It’s amazing to see our cultures, which are so close, finally normalising and I think it’s a first step to solving the Palestinian issue. When we start talking and collaborating, we get solutions.”

NYU opened its doors to Abu Dhabi students in 2010. Its association with the UAE was controversial from the outset, with criticism over poor working conditions for the migrant labourers hired to build the campus on Saadiyat Island.

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