In a Landscape of Tension, Bahrain Embraces Its Jews. All 36 of Them.

The New York Times

Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times

A Jewish cemetery in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has taken unprecedented steps for an Arab leader to demonstrate support for the nation’s Jewish population.

Published: April 5, 2009

MANAMA, Bahrain — It’s O.K. to be Jewish in Bahrain.

Actually, that may be an understatement.

“It’s fashionable,” said Rouben Rouben, 55, an electronics dealer who proudly displays his name, a recognizably Jewish one, on the sign above all four of his shops in Manama, the capital.

In the tense landscape of the Middle East, there is little room left for Jewish Arabs, a tiny minority in this country as well as in places like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But in Bahrain, the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has taken unprecedented steps for an Arab leader to show his support for his dwindling Jewish population. Last year, he appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, the first Jewish ambassador posted abroad by any Arab country.

Then he made a personal visit to London to appeal to expatriate Jews to return to Bahrain. He has also appointed Jewish business leaders to the Shura Council, which acts as an upper house of Parliament. Those measures went against the tide in a region where anti-Semitism is often preached from government-controlled mosques and hating all Jews has become interchangeable with hating the state of Israel.

“The fact that Bahrain has a Jewish community that is in the open and still plays a role in that society is significant and an important symbol for the region,” said Jason F. Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

However, it is a community of only 36, and most are older adults. They are mostly descendants of merchants from Iraq and Iran whose families have lived in Bahrain for centuries, experts here said.

Mr. Rouben said that there were about 600 Jews in Bahrain before 1948, when Israel became a state, “but with every war, more left.” He said that most moved to Europe or the United States.

Few here expect the community to survive unless some expatriates can be enticed to return. So far, there appear to have been few takers.

Being Jewish in the conservative Persian Gulf region still presents challenges, even in Bahrain. Though it has preserved its last synagogue, the building has not had a religious use for decades and all Jewish symbols have been removed. Nevertheless, it is defaced with graffiti that says, in Arabic, “Death to Israel.”

Most of the Jewish merchants did not want to draw attention to their lives and so declined to be interviewed. Mr. Rouben said that was because “we don’t want to be thought of as separate.”

Some people here take a cynical view of their king’s outreach. Bahrain is a close American ally of great strategic value to Washington. It is near Iran and allows the United States Navy to base its Fifth Fleet here. Many people said the king’s overtures were a safe and convenient bid to cement ties with Washington.

“We always believe here that control of America is governed by the Zionist lobby,” said Salman Kamal al-Deen, a businessman and the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. “The media and the money are all in the hands of the Jews. We believe if we have a Jewish ambassador and Jews in the Shura Council, this is a positive indicator for the country.”

There is also some resentment at the king’s support for the small Jewish community. Bahrain is hot with sectarian tensions: the king, a Sunni Muslim, is accused of discriminating against Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of the native population. Shiites are barred from almost all positions in the military and security services, and they say they are not given the same employment and education opportunities as their Sunni neighbors.

Shiites complain that the 36 Jews are treated better than they are, and that the king’s Jewish outreach is intended to make Bahrain appear to be a tolerant society, papering over the systemic discrimination they say they experience.

“Because there is some religious tolerance in Bahrain, the king’s plan is to undermine the Shiite identity, not increase freedom,” said Habib Muhammad, 25, owner of a welding workshop in the Shiite village of Malikiya. “He wants to divert people’s attention from demanding their rights.”

Those charges are rejected by the nation’s leadership and do little to dampen the appreciation American Jews and Bahrain’s surviving Jews have shown for the king’s favor.

“The Jews of Bahrain are proud to be Bahraini, proud to be Arab,” said Nancy Khedouri, whose family business is a leading importer of tablecloths and linens and who has written a book on Bahrain’s Jewish history. “We are truly blessed to be living in an open and hospitable society.”

A six-member delegation from the American Jewish Committee visited Bahrain on March 18 and presented the king with its Leadership for Peace Award. Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel but agreed in 2004 to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel.

“This seems to be very much to us a country that stands against extremism and against the threat of a nuclear and terrorist-sponsoring Iran,” said Mr. Isaacson, of the American Jewish Committee.

There are still Jewish shops scattered through the old market. Almost all display their Jewish family names across their storefronts.

There was a time when Al Mutanabi Road, just around the corner from Mr. Rouben’s shop in the old market, was known as “Jews’ Street” because all the businesses were closed on Saturday. That is not the case anymore.

But unlike Saudi Arabia, which has done nothing to preserve or even acknowledge that Jewish Arabs once lived in the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain has taken steps to preserve its Jewish past. There is also a small Jewish cemetery in Manama, and, except for a pile of construction debris in the corner, it is clean and well tended.

Mr. Rouben said that because the synagogue had not been used since 1948 for religious purposes — there is no rabbi and there are few observant Jews, he said — he and other Jewish families wanted to turn it into a commercial property. But, he said, the king would not allow it.

Today, Mr. Rouben said, there is no tension between him and most of his Muslim neighbors.

“We don’t keep to ourselves,” he said. “My best friends are all Muslims.”

That is one of those compliments that can cut two ways.

Fouad Shehab, a history professor at Bahrain University, said it was easy to like Mr. Rouben. “I’ve known Rouben for years,” he said with a smile. “I go to buy from him. I don’t feel he is a Jew.”

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