Monday, April 06, 2009

Bahrain embraces its Jews - all 36 of them

Is the Bahraini king's charm offensive to his Jews an attempt to gain brownie points with the USA - or a genuine show of loyalty and affection? Whatever your view, a community of 36 Jews is hardly more than a remnant. Fair report in The New York Times, marred only by the irritating (and inaccurate) expression 'Jewish Arabs':

MANAMA, Bahrain — It’s O.K. to be Jewish in Bahrain.

Actually, that may be an understatement.

“It’s fashionable,” said Rouben Rouben, 55, an electronics dealer who proudly displays his name, a recognizably Jewish one, on the sign above all four of his shops in Manama, the capital.

In the tense landscape of the Middle East, there is little room left for Jewish Arabs, a tiny minority in this country as well as in places like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But in Bahrain, the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has taken unprecedented steps for an Arab leader to show his support for his dwindling Jewish population. Last year, he appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, the first Jewish ambassador posted abroad by any Arab country.

Then he made a personal visit to London to appeal to expatriate Jews to return to Bahrain. He has also appointed Jewish business leaders to the Shura Council, which acts as an upper house of Parliament. Those measures went against the tide in a region where anti-Semitism is often preached from government-controlled mosques and hating all Jews has become interchangeable with hating the state of Israel.

“The fact that Bahrain has a Jewish community that is in the open and still plays a role in that society is significant and an important symbol for the region,” said Jason F. Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

However, it is a community of only 36, and most are older adults. They are mostly descendants of merchants from Iraq and Iran whose families have lived in Bahrain for centuries, experts here said.

Mr. Rouben said that there were about 600 Jews in Bahrain before 1948, when Israel became a state, “but with every war, more left.” He said that most moved to Europe or the United States.

Few here expect the community to survive unless some expatriates can be enticed to return. So far, there appear to have been few takers.

Being Jewish in the conservative Persian Gulf region still presents challenges, even in Bahrain. Though it has preserved its last synagogue, the building has not had a religious use for decades and all Jewish symbols have been removed. Nevertheless, it is defaced with graffiti that says, in Arabic, “Death to Israel.”

Most of the Jewish merchants did not want to draw attention to their lives and so declined to be interviewed. Mr. Rouben said that was because “we don’t want to be thought of as separate.”

Some people here take a cynical view of their king’s outreach. Bahrain is a close American ally of great strategic value to Washington. It is near Iran and allows the United States Navy to base its Fifth Fleet here. Many people said the king’s overtures were a safe and convenient bid to cement ties with Washington.

“We always believe here that control of America is governed by the Zionist lobby,” said Salman Kamal al-Deen, a businessman and the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. “The media and the money are all in the hands of the Jews. We believe if we have a Jewish ambassador and Jews in the Shura Council, this is a positive indicator for the country.”

There is also some resentment at the king’s support for the small Jewish community. Bahrain is hot with sectarian tensions: the king, a Sunni Muslim, is accused of discriminating against Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of the native population. Shiites are barred from almost all positions in the military and security services, and they say they are not given the same employment and education opportunities as their Sunni neighbors.

Shiites complain that the 36 Jews are treated better than they are, and that the king’s Jewish outreach is intended to make Bahrain appear to be a tolerant society, papering over the systemic discrimination they say they experience.

Read article in full

3 comments:

Victor said...

It's easy to tolerate 36 of anything. What if they were 3600 or 36,000?

IndependentObserver said...

The New York Times has lately been waging a jihad against Israel and the "Israel Lobby," including publishing Oliphat's cartoon, front-paging Hearsaygate, accusing the "Israel Lobby" of persecuting Freeman, publishing Qaddafi's proposal for the elimination of Israel, and publishing Bisharat's blood libel against the IDF.

As for the misnomer "Arab Jew," it is unfortunate that so many Jews naively adopt the phrase, giving ammunition to both Islamic and leftist anti-Semites. Some who have done so are Rachel Shabi, Sasson Somekh, and others.

Anonymous said...

Today, King Hamad is supportive of his local Jews, but tomorrrow he can easily change his mind. The same can be said about the Iranian mullahs and their local Jews.