Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bahrain's unlikely Jewish emissary: Huda Nonoo

This article by Sarah Breger in Moment magazine recycles much of what we already know about Huda Nonoo, Bahrain's taciturn Jewish woman ambassador. The more the unrest grows, the less she says. The 36 Jews still living in Bahrain are undoubtedly loyal to their protector King Hamid al-Khalifa. If he falls, the Jews fall with him. But as one interviewee says, the community may be less than honest about its position on the island and view of Israel. The official line, supported by Jews in the public eye like author Nancy Khedouri and Huda Nonoo herself, is that native Bahrainis could never have perpetrated the riots of 1947 -not 1948 - killing two, not one, and burning down the synagogue (not mentioned) : they must have been the work of Arabs from outside. (With thanks: Vernon)

The Bahraini Jewish community was prosperous, with a part of town named after it: Al-Mutanabi Road—where all the businesses were closed on Saturdays—was known as Suq al-yahoud or the “Jew’s market.” By 1948 there were an estimated 1,500 Jews in Bahrain, according to Khedouri. The Jews, she says, “got along peacefully with their neighbors
and were involved in all aspects of Bahraini life.”

That is why the community was shocked when, following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, rioters tore through the Jewish quarter in Manama, looting houses and destroying property. Scores of Jews were injured, one woman died and the Torah scrolls were stolen from the synagogue. Jews such as Nonoo and Khedouri have said that the perpetrators of these attacks were Muslims from abroad living in Bahrain, not native Bahrainis. Charles Dalrymple
Belgrave, the British advisor to Bahraini rulers from 1926 until 1957, confirms this in his memoirs, writing that “the leading Arabs were very shocked...most of them, when possible, had given shelter and protection to their Jewish neighbors.”

Still, Bahraini Jews left en masse, some emigrating to Israel, others to England or America. Unlike in most Arab countries, they were allowed to leave with their property, although they were forced to give up their citizenship. An estimated 500 to 600 Jews remained in Bahrain until riots broke out after the Six-Day War in 1967.

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.”

Read article in full

A Jew from Bahrain adds:

*Al-Mutanabi Road—where all the businesses were closed on Saturdays—was known as Suq al-yahoud or the “Jew’s market. Jews started working on Saturdays from the late 1960s, but there was a time many years ago when they did not.

*an estimated 1,500 Jews in Bahrain: 800 is the most accepted figure.

* the Torah scrolls were stolen from the synagogue: There were two Torah scrolls in Bahrain. One was desecrated and the other was taken from the synagogue for safe keeping.

*rabbis in from England to perform bar mitzvahs, weddings and services: There have been no weddings in Bahrain since the 1960s. All marriages have been held abroad.


Juniper in the Desert said...

Interesting! So if Huda Nonoo is married, she got married outside Bahrain, as she looks too young to have married in the 1960's. She has never been to Israel so where did she get married? Does she have children? Where are they educated and do they go to school with Arabs? Does she have Arab friends? Etc, etc..

bataween said...

Hello Juniper
Huda has only been back in Bahrain since 1993, she was educated in England and probably married there. Yes, she has two teenage boys. They have Arab friends.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately if the King Hamad bin
Isa Al-Khalifa falls from power, it will be amost certain that the 36 to 40 Baraini Jews will have no alternative but to leave bahrain for their own protection, as a shiite takeover would take drastic measures against the few Bahraini Jews especially as they are supporters of the King. Well who else do you expect them to support, the shiites who would think nothing of murdering them just because they are jews, jealousy also plays a part in this scenario, most of the shiites can't understand how the King picked not only a woman but a jewish woman at that to represent their country as Bahraini Ambassador to the USA. I wouldn't like to be a Jew living in Bahrain at this time of indecisiveness, I was a babe in arms when my parents decided to flee Aleppo in Syria in 1947 after the anti-jewish riots took place.

Samir S. Halabi said...

I would not like to be a Jewish citizen of Bahrain at this moment in time, as it's still not clear what will be the future of that Kingdom, or if it will continue to be a kingdom if and I state if the Shiites have their way and King Hamad the protector of the Bahraini Jews is deposed. I certainly wouldn't trust those shiites further than i can see them. My family also fled Aleppo in Syria after the anti-jewish riots took place in 1947.