A group of British Jews have taken part in a rare interfaith initiative in Saudi Arabia where they were allowed to enter and plant palm trees in the sacred city of Madinah, the second holiest site in Islam after Makkah.
According to the Jewish Chronicle (JC), the event, said to be the first in 1,400 years, took place at the invitation of a private landowner as a gesture of friendship and goodwill to members of the other Abrahamic faiths – Judaism and Christianity.
The interfaith group was led by Jewish banker and philanthropist Rick Sopher from London, who recently visited neighbouring UAE to get a better understanding of the reconciliation initiatives in the country among the three faiths, with the recent opening of the Abrahamic Family House which includes the Gulf region’s first purpose built synagogue in almost a century.
Members of the delegation included other philanthropists, as well as businessmen and academics. Each participant was invited to plant a sapling of an ajwa date tree, which is native to Madinah and whose virtues have been extolled in narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Speaking at the tree-planting event, Sopher said: “If anyone had told me five or even ten years ago that I would be able to come to Saudi Arabia, everybody knowing that I am Jewish, also with friends, also Jewish, I would hardly have believed them. But not just to come to Saudi Arabia but to be received in such a friendly, hospitable way, is really something marvellous.”
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“I hope that this wonderful moment is going to lead to more wonderful moments of fraternity and being together, and coexistence and peaceful harmony. It’s really a heart-warming occasion,” he added.
Justin Cohen, a news editor for pro-Israeli outlet Jewish News, recently posted a TikTok video of himself at an unspecified location in Madinah, where he was reportedly part of a four-day fact-finding mission organised by the Woolf Institute “to explore social changes in the country, relation with the Jews and Christians and the possibility of closer ties with Israel”.
In the video, Cohen said: “1,400 years after a Jew last planted dates trees here we did exactly the same receiving a Shehecheyanu (a blessing) to mark the occasion.” Madinah was once home to a Jewish community consisting of three major tribes, however tensions and breaking a pact with the nascent Muslim community led to their execution and exile.
Until recently, non-Muslims were barred from entering Madinah. Laws were relaxed in 2021 enabling non-Muslim tourists to visit the city and make their way up to the perimeter fence of the Prophet’s Mosque.
Last year a delegation of 50 pro-Israeli Jewish business leaders visited Masjid Al-Nabawi in Madinah at the invitation of the Saudi authorities. Also last year, an Israeli tourist managed to enter Makkah, violating the prohibition of non-Muslims from entering the holy city.
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