Rabbi David Rosen speaks at a Feb. 24 interfaith gathering in San Francisco. (Dan Pine)
Rabbi David Rosen speaks at a Feb. 24 interfaith gathering in San Francisco. (Dan Pine)

First rabbi to meet Saudi monarch in Riyadh stops in S.F. full of optimism

With his recent visit to the Saudi Royal Palace, Rabbi David Rosen hit the jackpot of Jewish-Muslim understanding. The Feb. 20 meeting in Riyadh was the first official audience ever between an Orthodox rabbi from Israel and a Saudi monarch held in the desert kingdom.

For Rosen, who serves as director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, the meeting was a historic breakthrough. But it wasn’t his first time building bridges with Saudi leaders. He has been doing it for years as part of his mission to strengthen interfaith ties.

“I have met many Muslim leaders from Saudi Arabia, some of whom never met a Jew,” Rosen recalled in a Feb. 24 lunchtime presentation at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, co-sponsored by the AJC and the San Francisco Interfaith Council. “You could see the fear in their eyes because they had been fed with such propaganda. They thought I was an evil entity.”

Happily, he added, over time, “You could feel the attitudes melting.” What impact the visit may have on already warming relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, no one knows.

Over the course of his career, the British-born rabbi has worn more hats than a cast member of “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Rosen, 69, has served as chief rabbi of Ireland, overseen a large Orthodox congregation in Cape Town, South Africa and, as president of the Jewish Vegetarian and Ecology Society, has been an eloquent advocate for veganism as a Jewish moral imperative.

But the heart of his work in recent years has been interfaith outreach. For those efforts, he has been knighted by the Catholic Church and has won honors from the archbishop of Canterbury as well as from Rabbis for Human Rights. Rosen says he has seen stunning progress on the interfaith front.

“There has never been a time in human history with as much interreligious understanding,” he told his audience of local Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist leaders. “It’s the most amazing untold story of our time.”

There has never been a time in human history with as much interreligious understanding.

The meeting with Saudi King Salman came about under the auspices of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, which Rosen serves as the Jewish member of the board of governors. The organization, launched by the previous Saudi king and headquartered in Vienna, is part of Saudi Arabia’s effort to dial back the fallout from the kingdom’s notorious effort to spread intolerance and anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Muslim world, largely through Saudi-funded madrasas (Muslim schools).

Rosen said that senior Saudi royals have told him they want to do better.

“It’s been known as not just the heartland of Muslim orthodoxy, but where the most rigid interpretation of Islam was exported to the world,” Rosen said of Saudi Arabia, adding that the effort to change was necessary because “Islam cannot afford to be left behind.”

Rosen also met with a delegation of Saudi youth, which made a big impression. “They all spoke English and were enormously excited about changes taking place in Saudi Arabia,” he said, such as allowing women to drive and improving educational opportunities for girls. “It may seem trivial to us,” Rosen added, “but it was most exciting to them.”

This wasn’t the only historic milestone for Rosen this year. In January he accompanied more than 60 Muslim leaders from around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The visit was arranged by AJC. Among the leaders was Mohammad bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, who joined his fellow Muslims in prayer on the site of the notorious death camp.

“To be here, among the children of Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish and Islamic communities, is both a sacred duty and a profound honor,” he told the Associated Press at the time. “The unconscionable crimes to which we bear witness today are truly crimes against humanity. That is to say, a violation of us all, an affront to all of God’s children.”

Recalled Rosen, “It was one of the most moving events of my life. For [the Muslim leaders] to experience not only the sorrow and shock but the solidarity with us, and to see them pray at that place, was very moving.”

During a Q&A, Rosen spoke in his rapid-fire refined British accent (he noted that his father sent him to elocution school to help him lose his farm-country inflection). He acknowledged that improving Muslim-Jewish relations is a work in progress, and that a Lebanese Shia Muslim cleric in the Auschwitz delegation had received death threats.

But given his recent breakthroughs, Rosen’s bottom-line message was upbeat.

“We have a responsibility to go back to our respective communities,” he told his interfaith audience, “and share the good news.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.