Life’s good for Jews of Bahrain – as long as they don’t visit Israel
If you want to find the only synagogue in the Persian Gulf, come to Bahrain – a tiny desert kingdom linked to Saudi Arabia by the 15-mile King Fahd Causeway.
But don’t expect to find kosher restaurants, yeshivas or Yiddishkeit in this land of mosques and minarets; just 36 of Bahrain’s 700,000 or so inhabitants are Jews.
That’s not much – but these three dozen people form the only known Jewish community in any of the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
“The community is quite happy,” said Nancy Khedouri, 31, a Bahraini Jew. “People are very friendly. I went to school here, and all my friends from childhood are here. They always accepted me for who I was. It’s a very open society.”
Bahrain, the smallest of the Arab League’s 22 member nations, is slightly smaller than New York City. Its wealth is derived from vast petroleum resources, and its capital, Manama, is a modern, traffic-congested metropolis crowded with gleaming office towers, banks and shopping malls.
Annual per-capita income here is a healthy $19,000, though that’s less than that of Bahrain’s richer neighbors – Qatar and the UAE – which have successfully diversified their economies into tourism and financial services.
While an unknown number of expatriate Jews live in the GCC countries, working on contract for governments or private companies, only in Bahrain has a real Jewish community ever existed.
That’s a source of pride for Bahraini officials, who mentioned that fact during recent lobbying for a free-trade agreement with the United States. In order to win approval for the FTA in 2004, Bahrain agreed to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel.
Bahrain’s ambassador in Washington, Naser al-Belooshi, spoke proudly of his country’s Jewish community at a recent speech at a synagogue in Florida sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
Khedouri, who’s writing a book on the subject, says that as many as 1,500 Jews once lived in Bahrain. Nearly all of them came from Iraq, starting with the Yadgar family in the 1880s. The Yadgars became wealthy from the textile trade, while another prominent Jewish family, the Nonoos, made their fortune in banking, and the Khedouris are Bahrain’s leading importer of tablecloths and bed linens.
Electronics retailer Rouben Rouben was born in 1954 to a Sephardi Jewish family from Baghdad.
“In the 1930s and ’40s, the area along Al-Mutanabi Road was known as ‘Jews’ Street’ because there were so many Jewish-owned shops,” Rouben told JTA. “On Saturday, all the shops would close for Shabbat.”
Things changed in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel. Riots erupted, the synagogue was burned down and most of Bahrain’s Jews emigrated to Great Britain.
Even in the 1960s, there were still 200 to 300 Jews in the country, but after 1967 – when anti-Israel riots again broke out following the Six-Day War – Jewish communal life in Bahrain came to an end.
Today, the country’s Jews rarely get together, Khedouri said. The last Jewish funeral was in 2001, and they barely managed to get a minyan.
“The community is dying out,” she said. “There is no rabbi here, so all religious ceremonies must be conducted abroad. Most of the people who are still in Bahrain are single. There’s not much to choose from, and there are very few cases of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs.”
The community’s unofficial leader is Abraham David Nonoo, who’s also a member of Bahrain’s 40-man Shura, or parliamentary council.
Nonoo, who couldn’t be reached for comment, recently renovated the country’s synagogue with his own funds.
“The roof started falling in, so we decided to renovate it, inside and outside,” Rouben said. “The community at one point wanted to convert the building for another use or give it to charity, but the government wouldn’t let us. They insisted it remain as a synagogue.”
Finding the shul isn’t easy, because it isn’t identified in any way as a Jewish house of worship. Even Khedouri had a hard time locating the nondescript beige structure along Sasa’ah Avenue in a lower-class commercial district of Manama.
In fact, the only marking on the synagogue itself was a blue-and-white bumper sticker slapped on the front door with the Arabic word “la,” or “no,” superimposed on the U.S. and Israeli flags, with a message in Arabic: “Every dinar you pay toward American goods goes to kill a Palestinian. And every dinar you pay toward the Palestinian people helps restore their rights.”
Shopkeepers eyed this reporter warily as he snapped pictures of the synagogue, which is always closed – as is the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town.
However, both were visited in the early 1990s by Yossi Sarid, a left-wing member of Israel’s Knesset, when a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict appeared imminent. The Jewish state quietly set up trade offices in Oman and Qatar, two moderate Arab countries that seemed ripe for peacemaking.
“Then the intifada started and things went backward,” said Rouben, noting that the trade office in Oman closed in the wake of hostilities, though the Israeli mission in Qatar remains open for business.
Rouben, who sells TV sets, DVD players, copies, fax machines and kitchen appliances from his downtown showroom, said “95 percent of my customers are Bahrainis, and the government is our No. 1 corporate customer. I’ve never felt any kind of discrimination.”
His nephew, Daoud Rouben, 19, is studying architecture at MIT. Daoud has two sisters; one goes to Cambridge University, while the other is at the London School of Economics on a Bahraini government scholarship.
“I think people abroad have an image that the Middle East is full of tension between Arabs and Jews,” said Daoud Rouben, who was back home visiting family. “But if I walk down the street here, people can’t tell where I’m from. They think I’m just another Bahraini.”
The only restriction at all, the elder Rouben said, is that he can’t travel to Israel. But he claims he wouldn’t do that anyway until there’s peace between Arabs and Jews.
Khedouri says she feels the same way.
“We’ve never been to Israel, we have nobody there, and because we hold Bahraini passports we cannot travel to Israel,” she said. “As far as we’re concerned, whatever the government will not let us do, we will not do. We’re law-abiding citizens.”
Rouben said that even during Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, he had no problems.
“Since we are a very small community, everybody knows who we are. Even if you gave me all the wealth of this world, I wouldn’t leave this country. For me, it is home.”
He added cautiously, “The government doesn’t tell me, ‘You’re a Jew, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ The day they say that, I’ll be packing my bags.”