A groundbreaking (pun intended) interfaith event brought Jews, Christians, and Muslims together at a symbolic planting of date palms in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The event marked the first time in 1,400 years that a Jew had planted a tree in the city which, until just a few years ago, had been off-limits to non-Muslims.
Rick Sopher, a Jewish banker from London, led the multi-faith delegation on a tour of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to learn about the history, religion and culture. The delegates, including prominent businessmen and philanthropists as well as a professor of history and other researchers from Cambridge University, met with local faith leaders. The delegation came to see if the Abraham Accords’ promise of reconciliation and friendship among the three faiths had materialized.
The group was invited by a private citizen of Saudi Arabia with land in the city of Medina to plant Ajwa date palms on his land. The species is native to the region.
The date palm bears strong significance in Islam and is an iconic symbol of Arabian hospitality. Traditionally, a guest is welcomed with an offering of dates and qahwa (coffee). Date palms are mentioned 22 times in the Koran; more than any other fruit-bearing plant. In the Koran, Muhammed said that Ajwah dates grown in the Medina region are from paradise.
In an interview with the London-based Jewish Chronicle, Sopher praised the event.
“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,” he said. “But not just to come to Saudi Arabia but to be received in such a friendly, hospitable way, is really something marvelous.
“Not just Saudi Arabia but to come to Al Madinah Al Munawwarah, the enchanting, enlightened city, is something absolutely marvelous,” he continued. “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 heartwarming occasion.”
The event had political as well as religious significance. Before March 2004, the official Saudi government website stated that Jews were forbidden from entering the country. While that restriction has been lifted, non-Muslims are still not allowed to enter Nabawi Square in Medina, where the Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi (the mosque of the Prophet), the second mosque built by Mohammed, is located. Medina is the second holiest site in Islam.
In Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, only Muslims are allowed, while non-Muslims may not enter or pass through. Attempting to enter Mecca as a non-Muslim can result in penalties such as a fine. Being in Mecca as a non-Muslim can result in deportation.
Before the rise of Islam, Medina had a substantial Jewish population. Of the three main Jewish tribes, one was opposed to the emerging religion of Islam. Following the Invasion of Banu Qurayza by Muslim armies led by Mohammad in the 7th century, many of the Jewish men were executed and the women and children were enslaved at the oasis of Yathrib. Many were forcibly converted to Islam.
“An invitation to plant a palm tree in the place where Jews had once looked after them had a special resonance. I was effectively the first Jewish person to plant a date tree in Medina for 1,400 years,” Sopher told the Jewish Chronicle.The delegates visited the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, the newly-opened interfaith complex which comprises three equally-sized prayer buildings: a synagogue, a church, and a mosque. The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue located in the complex is the first purpose-built synagogue in the country in almost a century.