The Gulf: Discovering the Past, Building a Future – Bahrain
The visibility of Jews in Bahrain’s public space has become more prominent since the Gulf kingdom became a signatory to the Abraham Accords. The country’s leadership has been instrumental in this, actively participating in fostering public Jewish life in the country.
In February 2021, Nancy Khedoury, a member of Bahrain’s Shura Council, was interviewed on the Al-Arabiya TV Channel. Khedoury emphasized the peaceful coexistence of Jews and other minorities in Bahrain, even during the 1948 and the 1967 wars when anti-Jewish violence erupted in numerous Muslim countries. While maintaining that Jews have always lived freely in Bahrain, she stressed that Bahraini Jews are now better connected to other communities in the world due to the Abraham Accords. Moreover, Khedoury also referred to the synagogue in Manama as a Jewish site that can attract international visitors.
The House of Ten Commandments synagogue in Manama was reopened in March 2021 after being restored under the aegis of King ‘Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. This event publicized the history of the local Jewish community, which hailed from Iraq and settled in Bahrain in the 19th century. Some critics viewed this act as an attempt to welcome “Zionist visitors” in the aftermath of normalization with Israel. Still, the event was well-received, and the ability to gather openly in a synagogue is a significant novelty; as in other parts of the region, Jews in Bahrain have lived a secretive life due to the performantly hostile attitudes toward Judaism.
Jews gained further prominence in Bahraini public life in August when the first celebration of Shabbat services since the late 1940s also made the news. Interviewed by the Times of Israel, the Head of the Bahraini Jewish Community, Ibrahim Nonoo, stated that this significant change may be the beginning of a renewed Jewish life in the country, including the hope to open a Jewish school in the future and appoint a rabbi. The attendance of Bahraini public figures confirmed the importance of the event; former Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa defined it as a historical moment for the Jewish community and national coexistence in the country.
In September, the celebration of the first Jewish marriage in Bahrain in half a century gained broad media coverage across the Arab world. Talking about Jews and Jewish life is not an ordinary matter, as Jews are typically associated with Zionism and Israel. Some commentators criticized these changes as a direct result of normalization with Israel and a consequent betrayal of the Palestinian cause. In response to the opposition against Jewish visibility, Egyptian commentator Suleiman Gouda emphasized that a distinction must be made between religious views on Judaism and political views on the State of Israel, and, praising the diversity of Arab societies, recalled examples of Jews serving in official positions in Arab countries until the 1950s. The visibility of Jewish life in the Arab world is gaining momentum because of political changes that also empower social activists to advance different views on Jews and Israel.
- Public promotion of Jewish visibility. Supporting Jewish life in Arab countries is essential to recognizing that Jews are still, despite their small numbers, integral parts of social fabrics. The initiatives to restore Jewish properties are commendable because they show that the welfare of minorities is in the public interest. Bahrain’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth should be encouraged to promote societal initiatives to acquaint citizens with the Jewish past and tradition – e.g., visits to Jewish sites and encounters with Jewish community members. This could also include the introduction of school curricula on the history of the Holocaust and Jewish history in Bahrain.
- Guarantee safety. Increased visibility raises security risks for the local Jewish community, its prominent members, and its properties. Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior should be encouraged to allocate specific resources to protect minorities and their specific needs in light of potential threats linked to their growing visibility.
- Dr. Giovanni Quer