Politics

U.S. Delegation Cuts Off Saudi Trip After Rabbi Asked to Remove Kippah

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said on Monday it terminated a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia because USCIRF Chairman Abraham Cooper, an Orthodox rabbi, was asked to remove his kippah head covering.

USCIRF detailed the March 5 incident in a statement on Monday:

After several delays to the tour, officials requested that Cooper, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, remove his kippah while at the site and anytime he was to be in public, even though the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had approved the site visit. 

U.S. Embassy staff accompanying the USCIRF delegation supported and conveyed to Saudi officials Chair Cooper’s polite but resolute refusal to remove the kippah. 

Despite their efforts, site officials escorted the delegation off the premises after Chair Cooper indicated he sought no confrontation or provocation but as an observant Jew could not comply with a request to remove his kippah.

“No one should be denied access to a heritage site, especially one intended to highlight unity and progress, simply for existing as a Jew,” Cooper said.

“Saudi Arabia is in the midst of encouraging change under its 2030 Vision. However, especially in a time of raging antisemitism, being asked to remove my kippah made it impossible for us from USCIRF to continue our visit,” he said.

Saudi Vision 2030 is the modernization plan laid out in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is now the de facto chief executive of the Saudi government. The plan calls for liberalizing Saudi society to make it more compatible with the rest of the modern world – and more enticing to foreign investors.

“We note, with particular regret, that this happened to a representative of a U.S. government agency promoting religious freedom,” Cooper said, adding that his commission looked forward to working with the Saudi government to “address the systematic issues that led to this troubling incident.”

The kippah, which is perhaps known more widely by its Yiddish name yarmulke, is a head covering worn at all times by Orthodox Jewish men. Non-Orthodox Jews tend to wear them during religious services.

File/Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Simon Wiesenthal Center briefs the media after releasing its annual Top Ten Worst Global Anti Semitic/Anti-Israel Incidents at The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California on December 30, 2014. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

According to USCIRF, Cooper and Vice Chairman Rev. Frederick Davie were paying an official visit to Saudi Arabia when they were invited to tour the town of Diriyah, a historic site near the modern Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Diriyah was the first capital city of the Saudi dynasty. Founded in the 15th Century, its At-Turaif palace district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historic importance and distinctive architecture.

The city is also important to a certain branch of Islam, as it was the home of Sheikh Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, who is today regarded as the founder of the severe Wahabbi brand of Islam. Wahabbism is very influential in Saudi Arabia.

Whether any of this history played a role in the incident with Cooper or not was not immediately clear. USCIRF Vice Chair Davie said the request for Cooper to remove his kippah was “stunning and painful,” and it “directly contradicted” the Saudi Vision 2030 narrative of “change” and “religious freedom.”

File/Press conference at The Museum of Tolerance on 20 December, 2007, for support of Japanese American WWII vets to get a U.S. postage stamp in their honor. Rabbi Abraham Cooper speaks to a group of Japanese Veterans and the press about the soldiers’ heroism and modesty. (Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“While we appreciate the various meetings we had in country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Human Rights Commission, and other interlocutors, this unfortunate incident starkly illustrates that much more work remains to be done for Saudi Arabia to align with international legal protections guaranteeing this fundamental right,” Davie said.

“The key to real progress for all who seek peace is to remember that respect is a two-way street,” Cooper and Davie said in the conclusion to their joint statement.

The Saudi embassy in Washington released a statement on the incident on Tuesday, describing it as an unfortunate “misunderstanding of internal protocols.”

The embassy said Saudi Ambassador to the United States Princess Reema Bint Bandar has spoken with Rabbi Cooper, and has welcomed him to return to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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