JTA / October 18, 2006
By Larry Luxner
MANAMA, Bahrain — 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 Islamic land of mosques and minarets; just 36 of Bahrain's 700,000 or so inhabitants are Jews.
That isn't much — but these three dozen 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, a 31-year-old 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 offshore petroleum resources. 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 still less than that of its richer neighbors — Qatar and the UAE — which have successfully diversified their economies into tourism and financial services.
While an unknown number of individual, expatriate Jews live throughout the GCC countries, working on contract for governments or private companies, only in Bahrain has a real Jewish community ever existed.
This is 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, Bahrain agreed to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel.
Earlier this year, Bahrain's ambassador in Washington, Naser al-Belooshi, spoke proudly about his country's Jewish community during 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 at one time, as many as 1,500 Jews 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 Sephardic 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 closed 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 broke out following the Six-Day War — Jewish communal life in Bahrain came to an end.
Today, the country's Jews rarely get together for anything, said Khedouri. The last Jewish funeral was in 2001, and they only 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 for this article, recently renovated the country's synagogue with his own funds.
"The roof started falling in, so we decided to renovate it, inside and outside," said Rouben. "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 or worship. Even Khedouri had a hard time locating the nondescript beige structure located 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" (meaning no) superimposed on the U.S. and Israeli flags, with a message in Arabic: "Every dinar you pay towards American goods goes to kill a Palestinian. And every dinar you pay towards the Palestinian people helps restore their rights."
Shopkeepers eyed this reporter warily as he snapped pictures of the Manama 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 leftist member of Israel's Knesset, when a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict appeared just around the corner. The Jewish state set up trade offices in Oman and Qatar, two moderate Arab countries that seemed ripe for peace with Israel.
"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 — right down the street from the City Center Hotel — said "95% of my customers are Bahrains, and the government is our No. 1 corporate customer. I've never felt any kind of discrimination."
His nephew, Daoud Rouben, 19, is currently studying architecture at MIT. Daoud has two sisters; one goes to Cambridge University in England, the other is at London's 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, 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, said the elder Rouben, is that as a Bahraini citizen, he may not 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."