MANAMA, Bahrain — The market around the historic area of Bab al-Bahrain (Gateway of Bahrain) is beginning to get busy this Friday morning, the first weekend day here. Five Filipino women, two wearing crucifixes, pose giggling for a photograph. Nearby, a group of men in the traditional white robes and headdresses of Bahrain — thobes and ghutras — sip tea and coffee as they debate whether Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sissi can be compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nearby are a Hindu temple, a Shia Maatam, a church and a synagogue.
Houda Ezra Nonoo, dressed in a knee-length skirt and sandals, smiles as takes in this scene, not far from the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Until recently, she was Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington. She is also Jewish, one of a few remaining members of her religious group. (Reliable data are impossible to come by, but a U.S. government estimate puts it under 1 percent.) Amazingly, the Jews of this Gulf monarchy are not just hanging on, but ascending to powerful posts. They had king-appointed seats in the parliament’s upper chamber. Bahrain’s ecumenical trappings are unusual enough, but this petro state even offers a whiff of philo-Semitism.
The first references to the Jewish community in what is now Bahrain date back to the 12th century, in the writings of a Jewish traveler from Spain. By the 1940s, about 1,000 Jews lived in Bahrain. Numbers dwindled after Jewish homes and businesses were attacked, and the synagogue was burnt, in 1947 after the U.N. vote that would lead to an Israeli state. Violence broke out again in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Many Jewish families migrated to Britain, the United States and Israel. Still, said Nonoo, “During the time of anti-Jewish sentiments, many Muslim families sheltered their Jewish neighbor.”
And some Jews — today, about 50 — remain. Like most of these, Nonoo’s family came from Iraq in the 1880s and started a business. Jews were active in jewelry, textiles and money exchanges. They now “enjoy the respect and protection of the King, have lived in the country for more than a century and a half, and have full religious freedom,” says Jason Isaacson, director of government and international Affairs, of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, who travels to Bahrain frequently.
Nancy Khedouri, 39, has been a member of the Shura Council, the parliament’s upper chamber, since 2010, after Nonoo left for the ambassador’s post in Washington.“We all work together as a family, as lawmakers for the benefit of the Bahraini people,” Khedouri says.
King Hamad envisions a “diverse and tolerant society,” as his father, Sheikh Isa, also did, says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Nonoo’s own family history is a barometer of that tradition. Her grandfather Ebrahim Pinchas Nonoo, was elected to the Bahraini municipality council in 1934, one year after the Nazis assumed power in Germany. “I had no idea about what had happened to Jews in Europe until I went to boarding school in Britain,” Nonoo says. Once she started meeting Holocaust survivors and listening to their stories, she understood how lucky she and her family had been.
Today, Nonoo likes to talk about the shock of her diplomatic counterparts when she revealed her Jewish heritage. She recalled the ashen faces and raised eyebrows of politicians and officials in Washington. “Jewish? How is that possible?” they asked.
Still, Bahrain is not seen by all its citizens as an unadulterated paradise of tolerance. Nonoo and Khedouri say they have never faced discrimination, but human rights advocacy groups and members of the opposition claim that Shiite Bahrainis, a substantial share of the populace, face “systematic” discrimination. Some Shiites here joined Arab Spring protests in 2011, demanding more rights from the Sunni royal family or even its outright ouster. The government cracked down, and human rights abuses from that period have been widely reported and criticized. In the past two years, the violence has escalated: Molotov cocktails and roadside bombs are used regularly, according to Western diplomats and intelligence officials. The government and the protesters have been accused of torture and assaults on innocent people.
Both Nonoo and Khedouri acknowledge that the regime made mistakes in how it responded to some of the 2011 incidents, but they disagree with certain claims. They argue that reformers who want change should take part in the elections, not boycott them, as the leading opposition group had just said it would do. Henderson adds: “Some Shias thrive and prosper even today so ‘systematic discrimination’ isn’t quite right.” He sees the issue as a need for Shiite to be more involved in the economy. “Political progress is more a matter of giving the Shias a bigger slice of the cake. The cake has grown in recent years but the Shia portion of it hasn’t,” he adds.
Nonoo says that Bahrain is a “multi-religious” nation and is eager to advertise it as such. Now that she has returned to the Foreign Ministry from her post in Washington, she spends her free time helping to rehabilitate the local synagogue, which had not been used for religious ceremonies in years because many Jews here practice in their homes. “We thought we should turn it into a center to teach people about Judaism and Jewish history in Bahrain,” she says.
Souad Mekhennet is co-author of “The Eternal Nazi” and a visiting fellow at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.