An Ashkenazi in Saudi Arabia, By Andrew Joppa

Anecdotes seldom matter. What follows is an anecdote that I believe has something to say.


While I was raised a Roman Catholic, as my life events unfolded, I became aware that my “birthing” father was an Ashkenazi Jew…never knew him…couldn’t have cared less. That is a very long story that I won’t relate to you here. listed me as actually being 65% European Jewish (Ashkenazi). They wove in part of my mother’s Castilian Spanish background to reach this number. Her family, going back to their expulsion from Spain in 1492, were Jewish. I didn’t consider myself to be Jewish. Then, the challenging events of last Saturday unfolded…and today, I am a Jew…not religiously, but in the very essence of my being.


In 1999, I spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia giving marketing seminars in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Al Khobar. My wife wasn’t happy. She knew I had a big mouth without a “governor” on what came out.  The terrorist attack on Khobar Towers had been only a few years before in 96’. She was right I was foolhardy. Before leaving America, I removed the Magen David (Star of David) I wore around my neck to show my support for Israel…not my father. I was no hero.

Those in attendance for this, three-day, very overpriced, experience with an American marketing “expert,” were comprised of international marketing managers operating in Saudi Arabia and Saudis, functioning in that same capacity. It became as surreal an experience as I’ve ever had…and I’ve had several.


My events were promoted as, “For the First Time in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf…The New Dimension in Marketing and Sales Impact.” This vastly overstated the implications of my seminar. I was there on my own, a consulting independent, with only a ground escort, Saleem, who worked for the organizer and promoter of these activities, The Arab Development Institute, headquartered in Al Khobar.  I was recruited for this assignment by several Jordanian representatives of ADI, one of whom had been a student in my graduate course in marketing.


My first stop was in Jeddah where I stayed at The Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, the site of the first seminar. I was met there by the head of the ADI, Nabil Karaishi, (my spelling might be off); he wore traditional Saudi garb. He, like almost all Saudi’s, spoke perfect English, with English being a required second language in their schools.   After a brief introductory conversation, we walked out to a Red Sea jetty about 100 yards from the hotel.


We were followed and preceded by a crowd of several hundred, who chanted and threw flowers in our path…certainly not for me.  Nabil’s robes were billowing in the wind; the sun now at its lowest ebb in the western sky, as we climbed the highest rock on the jetty … everything glowing a fireball red. The crowd chanted on with what can only be described as adoration approaching rapture. He stroked their heads in almost a religious manner. It was obvious, “I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” This was a world that was totally different than the one I had left 24 hours before.  It was like a scene from medieval Europe.


During my first seminar day my small digital camera was stolen during a lunch break. I got in touch with my ADI contact and related this event. He told me that if the thief was identified and caught, his hands would be cut off. I didn’t want to be complicit in this outcome, so I said nothing. It was suggested I was very wrong in not seeking this penalty as it would have been the will of Allah…as everything was. This was a theme that existed for many circumstances. Very few people owned any responsibility directly…it was always the will of Allah.


More importantly, within the circumstances of recent events in Israel, were the countless interactions I had with the Saudis during lunch and dinners.  I would note that I liked most of them. They were respectful, intelligent, and…seemed…decent. I think they forgot I was an American and I became “one of them.” This held true with one horrid, but consistent, exception. I found it startling how often the “Jews” came up in casual conversation.  Seemingly out of nowhere, there would be the most degrading comments being made about “Jews”. These were typically followed by agreement and uproarious laughter of recognition.


The comments were offered with a casualness that resembled, “pass the salt” … or “what a nice day.” It was obviously part of their normal interactive process…it certainly wasn’t being done to impress me. Every time it occurred, I was tempted to rebut their comments but…I was on “hostile” territory and didn’t know the implications of what these rebuttals might generate. As I previously offered, I’m not a hero, nor am I stupid…generally.


It was obvious that the Jewish people and Israel were living rent free in the mind of the average Saudi. If the food had a funny smell…it would be, “Just like the Jews.” If someone said something stupid or ignorant it would be, “You sound just like a Jew.”  If we moved into world events, it seemed that Jews were the cause of every trouble on the planet through some strange warping of logic. Though it wasn’t directly suggested, it seemed that their position on the Jews was that if there were no Jews there would be no problems. It should be noted that the Jews and Israel were the same thing and were used interchangeably…putting to lie the view that someone says they love the Jews but hate Israel or vice a versa.


I could only offer one analogy for all this. If I had sat down with a German family in1942, most of my hosts would have seemed quite decent and normal. All of that would have persisted until the moment when the topic of the Jews came up and you found out that these “decent” people thought Jews should be deported, suppressed or…killed.


As it pertains to the Arab world…if your countries are cesspools, and the people live degraded lives, you need a common enemy to unite and distract them.  The Jew has always been the fall guy in those moments. If the Jews didn’t exist, the Arabs would have to invent him. If the Jews didn’t exist, then everybody in Gaza would be out of work.


The Egyptians must be persuaded to open the Egyptian Corridor so that those who want to leave Gaza can do so.  Of course…nobody wants Palestinians in their country.  Jordan has proved this on multiple occasions and Lebanon has paid an enormous price for allowing these killers to gain access to their country.


No…the Arab world has decided that the misnamed Palestinians should be Israel’s problem and serve as a rallying cry for all the anti-Semitism that dominates the Arab world.

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