Hundreds of kilograms of handmade matzah were distributed year to Jews across Saudi Arabia this year, according to US-born businessman and Rabbi Yaakov Herzog. “God willing,” I will be able to hold the Passover Seder in the Arab state next year, he says.
Now a resident of Jerusalem, the 45-year-old Herzog says he hopes to move to Saudi Arabia with his family within the next six months.
Noting the absence of any infrastructure for Jewish communal life in Saudi Arabia, Herzog explains he is building everything – including a ritual bath – there from scratch.
Herzog emphasizes he is not a Chabad emissary or an employee of the Jewish state.”I don’t know what the expectation is for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. I only know that the countries of the region always maintain some level of ties, and my aspiration is for King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to provide recognition of the Jewish community in the kingdom soon.
He said that “to date, I provide all the necessary services to Jews there of my own initiative and on a voluntary basis. If the king were to ask me, I would gladly serve formally in the role and be the chief rabbi of Saudi Arabia. The goal is a transition to my being a businessman so that I can be the Jewish community chairman. Wherever I can add value, I’m happy to help.”
As the owner of a business that markets vegetable seeds, Herzog says his job experience has taught him that “it’s always preferable to maintain a state of dialogue. I trust the leaders on both sides to know what to do at this stage and to promote ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
According to Herzog’s assessment, some 3,000 Jews employed by international firms and with roots in places like the US, Canada, France, and South Africa currently reside in the kingdom. He says some stay for a few months, while others have been in Saudi Arabia for over a decade.
While Saudi Arabia had a Jewish community in the southwestern city of Najran, located near the Yemenite border, Herzog sees regional changes as a correction of the historical injustice of the first half of the 20th century. “With the deportation of the Jews from Saudi Arabia, there was a big shift between the Saudi kingdom and the rest of the Islamic states in which there was regulated Jewish life under the auspices of the state,” he says.
Noting “the deep connection Jews and Muslims have from the time of our forefather Abraham until after the founding of Israel, as well as the Jewish life in all of the Shiite and Sunni states, outside of Saudi Arabia, the most important Muslim country in the world,” he said, “a historic correction is now underway in that they show that they respect and accept Jews as has always been accepted in Islam. In general, with all of the process of modernization they are undergoing, the Saudis will always be very traditional and appreciate traditional people with a strong and clear identity.”
Over the last three years, Herzog has maintained close ties with the Saudis on issues such as agriculture and sustainability ahead of the establishment of the Saudi smart city of Neom, which is expected to become a leading global financial center.
“In my personal experience, I have never experienced hostility or felt any kind of disrespect toward Jews in Saudi Arabia, and therefore any future agreement will stand on a genuine foundation of connection and good ties. They are welcoming of me and expect to see more and more Jews arriving there. The time has come for it to be that way, and I believe many people will find a greater blessing there than they could have imagined.”
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