The Unlikely Emissary
The few who stayed now fly rabbis in from England to perform bar mitzvahs, weddings and services. The synagogue, the only one on the Arabian Peninsula, is still standing but is closed due to the community’s small numbers, and services take place in a residential home. The Jewish cemetery is open, and while there is no kosher food available, Houda’s sister-in-law—a native Briton who keeps the only strictly kosher home in the community—imports kosher meat from England once a month.
As part of widespread reforms and openness to non-Shiite immigration, King Hamad has actively reached out to Jewish Bahrainis. In 2008 he met with Jewish expatriates in England and New York and told them they could return and regain their citizenship, offering financial incentives for those who might have lost land when they left. He informed an audience of 50 Bahraini Jews in New York, “It’s open, it’s your country.”
Despite these overtures, there are those who believe that the position of Jews is not as secure as is claimed by the government and by Bahrain’s Jews themselves. Bahrain’s Jews are vulnerable to the news from Israel, which can reflect poorly on the Jewish community. As the husband of one Bahraini expatriate said anonymously, for fear of repercussions, “It’s very hard to discern whether the Jewish population there is completely honest when discussing their role on the island and their feelings about Israel,” because “the ruling family still lives in this ‘alternative reality’ that permeates every Arab country,” refusing to acknowledge that “the Jewish people have any kind of historic right or spiritual connection to the land of Israel.”
Like most Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt, Bahrain has no relations with Israel. As a result, in Washington, Nonoo has no contact with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador whose embassy is just down the block. Yet Bahrain’s ruling class is showing signs of thawing in regard to Israel: The crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, 42, a graduate of a U.S. Defense Department high school in Bahrain and American University in Washington DC, has called on Arab governments to increase communications with Israelis. “We need fresh thinking if the Arab Peace Initiative is to have the impact it deserves on the crisis that needlessly impoverishes Palestinians and endangers Israel’s security,” he wrote in a 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post. “This crisis is not a zero-sum game. For one side to win, the other does not have to lose.” Last December, King Hamad himself stressed the importance of peace talks. Nonoo is positive that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can be found. “I hope so. For the Arab world as a whole, it is on their agenda,” she says directly. “I hope it happens.”
The reaction within Bahrain to the crown prince’s op-ed was decidedly less positive, exposing yet another rift between the ruling faction and popular opinion. “Many Bahrainis have stated privately that the crown prince’s piece in the Post piece [sic] is not representative of Bahraini public opinion,” reported U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain J. Adam Ereli in a diplomatic cable released through WikiLeaks, describing the reaction of people as “viscerally opposed.” In 2009, the country’s lower parliament voted to penalize Bahrainis with business ties to Israel.
Nonoo is often asked about the nature of her relationship to Israel. For her, Israel is not an existential question of Jewish identity. “I have never visited Israel,” she says. “I hold a Bahraini passport and my country has no diplomatic relations with Israel. This is the country I come from. I’m Jewish. I’m not Israeli.”
The current demonstrations in Bahrain are not isolated events. Last August, protests erupted in Manama, leading the government to arrest numerous Shiite political and human rights leaders, and to crack down on press and Internet sites. According to the government, those detained were suspected terrorists and were not held for expressing dissident political views. Facing international criticism, Nonoo defended the government’s actions in a letter to The New York Times. “Against the backdrop of continuing incidences of violence and public disorder, arrests were made because significant evidence was discovered of a network planning and instigating attacks on public property and inciting violence,” she wrote. “Upholding the rule of law requires us to protect the rights of all citizens, including those at risk of violence, and we cannot tolerate illegal activities that seek to undermine our values and endanger lives.”