The night Rabbi Raphael Lapin flew into Doha, Qatar’s capital city looked like a “giant jewel box.”
Though it might seem odd at best, and dangerous at worst, for an Orthodox rabbi to spend time in an Arab Muslim nation such as Qatar, Lapin said his recent sojourn there changed him profoundly.
“Qatar is a phenomenal place,” Lapin said of the nation that borders the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. “The trip changed my perspective in many ways. The government is unbelievably proactive.”
Lapin, who lives in San Jose, heads an international mediation and conflict resolution business. The Doha government contracted him to train Qatari business leaders and ministry officials in modern negotiating techniques. The fact that he is an Orthodox Jew simply didn’t come up in their discussions, Lapin said.
His contacts were Arab men dressed in kaffiyehs and flowing white robes. The women covered themselves in head-to-toe burkas. Yet he said he was welcomed and respected, and that he was in the company of forward-thinking progressives.
“They are interested in developing ways of dealing with disputes and conflicts,” Lapin said, “as opposed to just litigation. I was basically teaching them and developing a system of dispute resolution. They are working very hard on infrastructure, education, health care. My first thought was, this is like Singapore in the early ’70s.”
Unlike hard-line nations such as Syria and Iran, Qatar and most of the other Persian Gulf states have pursued a more moderate political approach to the West. Qatar even had low-level diplomatic relations with Israel until the outbreak of the Gaza incursion last January.
Lapin said Qatar compares favorably to Israel and even surpasses the Jewish homeland when it comes to some aspects of statecraft.
“I’m very concerned,” he said. “Israel’s arrogance allows them to perceive the Arab as a primitive. But there’s a universe of Arabs in these Gulf states that is becoming a very strong force economically and politically. They work on PR, while Israel’s not doing that.
“For the Gulf states, Israel is a nonissue. They’ve moved on.”
Lapin found his Qatari partners to be Western-educated, fluent in English and eager for modernization. He also found them understanding of his Jewish heritage and tolerant of his religious needs.
That included observing Shabbat and eating kosher food. His hotel even made sure to have some imported Scottish smoked salmon (i.e. lox) on hand for his visit. Lapin’s one concession to keeping a low profile: He did not wear his kippah.
Normally, that would never happen. The South African native is the former rabbi of Am Echad Torah Community, an Orthodox congregation in San Jose founded by his father, Rabbi Avraham Hyam Lapin, in 1977.
The younger Lapin took the reins in 1991, while his wife, Chanie, served as principal of the affiliated Eitz Chaim Academy for 16 years.
Trained in negotiation at Harvard, in 1995 Lapin founded Conflict Management, which began modestly with divorce mediation and moved on to corporate conflict resolution. Clients have included British Telecom, Yahoo and Turner Construction (which built the new Yankee Stadium).
Lapin also has volunteered with American Jewish World Service, and he wrote a book for Penguin Publisher’s Essential Manager series. Titled “Working with Difficult People,” the new 72-page book is scheduled to be available in October.
Lapin plans on returning to Qatar in the fall. And when he does, he expects to build on the foundation of friendship he established last month.
“Before this trip I believed there wasn’t such a thing as a moderate Arab,” Lapin said. “I thought they were all al Qaida sympathizers at the minimum. But I was incredibly impressed with their level of education, their ambition and drive, and their excitement over building a country.”