Washington Jewish Week / February 24, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Bahrain's 36-member Jewish community has refused to join the protests shaking this tiny Persian Gulf country — and in fact has proclaimed its support for beleaguered King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa in the face of demands that the government be dismissed.
Nancy Khedouri, a prominent Jew of Iraqi origin who was recently named to Bahrain's 40-member upper parliament, known as the Shura Council, said the foreign media "has blown this thing out of proportion" ever since massive protests began Feb. 14 following similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran and Algeria.
At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the massive demonstrations wracking Bahrain, an oil-exporting nation and home to the U.S. 5th Fleet. Shiite Muslims comprise 70 percent of Bahrain's 800,000 people, even though the country has long been ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty.
"We are all numbed, saddened and shocked by what has happened," Khedouri said by phone Saturday from the capital, Manama, adding that "everybody's been glued to the TV" anxiously wondering what will happen next.
Even so, she said, not a single Jew has left Bahrain — despite the violence that has wracked this oil-rich island sheikhdom no bigger than New York City.
"All the Bahraini people, regardless of religious differences, have always stood united as one family and respect each other. The majority are in full support of his majesty, regardless of what happened," she insisted. "Yes, it's very upsetting, but we all have faith that this is just a temporary cloud that will float away."
Khedouri's cousin, Houda Ezra Nonoo, is Bahrain's envoy to the United States and the first Jewish ambassador ever to represent any Arab country. In May, Nonoo hosted an event at the embassy organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. About 75 local Jewish women attended.
However, during the recent crisis, Nonoo did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment either about the situation in her homeland, or about the dozen or so protesters who gathered in front of her embassy last week, chanting "The King is a Murderer! Shame on Bahrain!" Asked if Iran is behind the protests by Bahrain's Shiite majority or might benefit in any way from the unrest in her country, Khedouri refused to comment.
"We do not point a finger at anybody," she said in an interview. "Regardless of our religious differences, we are sure to come out of this stronger. It just takes a little bit of patience."
Rouben Rouben, manager of an electronics and appliance shop in downtown Manama, said life is already back to normal.
"I'm sitting in my shop enjoying myself," said Rouben, also a member of the Jewish community. "Nobody in our community was affected. Nobody has left."
Bahrain is the only country in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (which also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) that has ever had a Jewish community.
Khedouri, who recently wrote a book on the subject, said 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 the Nonoos made their fortune in banking; the Khedouris are Bahrain's leading importer of tablecloths and bed linens. In the 1930s and 1940s, the area along Manama's Al-Mutanabi Road was known as Jews' Street because there were so many Jewish-owned shops. On Saturday, in fact, the entire street closed for Shabbat.
Things changed in 1948, with the establishment of Israel. Riots erupted, the synagogue was shuttered 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.
In a 2006 interview, Khedouri said the last Jewish funeral was five years earlier, and the mourners barely managed to form a minyan.
Community members say they have not experienced anti-Semitism. Nonoo told the Federation women in May that the only time she personally experienced prejudice was when attending a Jewish boarding school in Great Britain: Her Jewish classmates derided her as a "bloody Arab."
A Bahraini citizen in Europe who still maintains ties to the country's Jewish community said that "unfortunately, the media tends to exaggerate things" and cover only one side of the protest.
"I spent Thursday and Friday really upset, crying in my office," said the expatriate, who asked that her name not be used.
"The Jews are very well-protected. They're very pro-monarchy because they are loyal to the king," she explained. "Unlike the imported people, they and other immigrants have had a lot of benefits. Their fathers and grandfathers came to Bahrain and earned Bahraini nationality. These people have a right to be there."