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The Abraham Accords:
An Opening for Bahrain’s Jewish Community

by Sophie Smith

In mid-October 2021, the first Jewish wedding in 52 years was held in Bahrain.[i] It was facilitated by the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), a newly founded network of Jewish communities across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that focuses on developing Jewish life in the region. The event symbolises a larger, more recent trend in Bahrain in relation to the religious freedoms of Bahraini Jews. Following the formalisation of ties between Bahrain, the UAE and Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords, the Jewish community in Bahrain now practice their faith in public after decades of doing so in private.

A Rooted History in Bahrain

 

The Jewish population in Bahrain has a long history dating back to ancient times with accounts of a significant and thriving community that, at one point, even held a monopoly over the local pearling industry.[ii] In the late 19th century, a further wave of Jews arrived from Iraq, Iran and India, seeking opportunities in trade.[iii] In Bahrain, they established a thriving community; that is until the creation of Israel in 1947 and an associated wave of anti-Jewish demonstrations across the Arab world. In Bahrain, a short burst of riots destroyed the country’s only synagogue and several Jewish properties.[iv] Following 1947, and again after the 1967 Six-Day War, several Jewish families left Bahrain and only a tiny community remained in the country.[v]

 

Despite these two incidents, Bahrain’s Jewish community survived all local and regional upheavals and has not been prevented from playing active roles in business and public life—especially over the last two decades. For example, since 2000, three Jewish representatives have been appointed by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the Shura Council, the upper house of the National Assembly: Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo (Head of the AGJC) from 2000-2005, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo from 2005-2008 and Nancy Khedouri ever since 2010.

 

In an unprecedented move, Houda Nonoo was later named as Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States (2008-2013), the first Jewish person (let alone a Jewish woman) in the Arab world to hold such a position.[vi] This occurred along with other national initiatives, such as the end of Bahrain’s boycott of Israeli products as part of a free trade agreement with the US (2004).[vii] And, in 2015, King Hamad bin Isa officially celebrated Hanukkah, for the first time, with both Jews and Muslims.[viii] Such developments highlight a developing acceptance, on the state level, of the Jewish faith and supports Bahrain’s wider promotion of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Yet, whether this translated to the local scale is debatable as the Jews did not go as far as to practice their faith in public. This could be partially ascribed to the absence of a place to do so as the country’s only synagogue remained closed until recently and the small size of the community that made it more difficult to have the quorum (minyan) necessary for the religious services.

The Abraham Accords: A Game Changer

 

Since the historic signing of the Abraham Accords, the Jewish community in Bahrain has been enhanced: kosher food is now widely available and Jewish holidays are openly celebrated with several events being held at the recently renovated House of Ten Commandments.[ix] Indeed, in August 2021, the Jewish community held services for Shabbat (a day of rest in Judaism) for the first time since 1947[x] and the first Bar Mitzvah since 2005 took place, attended by diplomats, Bahrainis and other GCC nationals.[xi] The first prayer service also took place in September in the House of Ten Commandments, led by Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo.[xii] Building on this, the government is also playing an active role through different initiatives including the agreement between the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence and the US on tackling anti-Semitism in the Middle East.[xiii] To that end, the Accords built on and gave impetus to the acceptance of the Jewish faith in Bahrain.

 

Such an integration-in-practice approach is not limited to Bahrain. In the UAE, for instance, which hosts the largest Jewish community in the Gulf region, Jews have also gained additional freedoms in recent years. Already before the Abraham Accords, the UAE was home to Jewish services, such as schools and kosher restaurants, headed the Jewish UAE and the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE), founded in 2015 and 2018, respectively.[xiv] Against this backdrop, the government officially acknowledged the existence of Jews in the Emirates in 2019.[xv] And since the signing of the Abraham Accords, these efforts have accelerated with a proliferation of Jewish facilities in the country, including notably the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex with a mosque, church and synagogue, set to open in 2022.[xvi] On a smaller scale, Saudi Arabia too is making some headway as its school textbooks were altered to subtract explicitly antisemitic and anti-Christian material and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted Rabbi Marc Schneier in January 2020.[xvii]

 

Across the Gulf, Jewish communities have been gaining more religious freedoms in public, with the AGJC taking the lead in such initiatives. The first Jewish holiday, Purim, was celebrated openly across the Gulf as the community gathered virtually for the event with a keynote speech by Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence.[xviii] In April 2021, the AGJC hosted the first virtual commemoration of Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the Holocaust.[xix] And more recently, in August 2021, it organised the first Sephardic service in the region as part of the Jewish High Holidays.[xx] Outside of events, the AGJC is likewise spearheading the establishment of the Beth Din of Arabia — the Jewish Court that handles civil disputes, marriage and divorce, and inheritance issues — and the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency that certifies food products as kosher regionally.[xxi]

 

A Revival of the Jewish Community

 

Evidently, the Abraham Accords has provided an opening for further religious freedoms for Jews in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region. Indeed, Rabbi Elie Abadie, a senior and resident rabbi of the JCE, has stated that the return of public prayer in Bahrain was ‘renewing [their] history in the region.’ In light of this, the community is only likely to grow and revive with plans to have a resident rabbi in Bahrain, as well as establish a yeshiva (a religious school).[xxii] Such developments not only benefit the Jewish community in the region but also Bahrain’s international image as a tolerant country based on peaceful coexistence, which might, in turn, help boost its economy with new tourism and investment opportunities.

3 January 2022

References

 

[i] Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, ‘First Jewish Wedding in Bahrain in 52 Years,’ Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, October 15, 2021. https://www.gulfjewish.org/2021/first-jewish-wedding-held-in-bahrain-in-52-years-6/.

[ii] Ariel Scheib and Mitchell Bard, ‘Bahrain Virtual Jewish History Tour,’ Jewish Virtual Library, 2021. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/bahrain-virtual-jewish-history-tour.

[iii] World Jewish Congress, ‘Bahrain,’ World Jewish Council, August 2018. https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/about/communities/BH.

[iv] World Jewish Congress, ‘Bahrain.’

[v] World Jewish Congress, ‘Bahrain.’

[vi] World Jewish Congress, ‘Bahrain.’ Breaking Matzo, ‘The History of Jews in Bahrain,’ Breaking Matzo, September 30, 2020. https://breakingmatzo.com/history-of-jews/the-history-of-jews-in-bahrain/.

[vii] Breaking Matzo, ‘The History of Jews in Bahrain.’

[viii] Breaking Matzo, ‘The History of Jews in Bahrain.’

[ix] Ilan Ben Zion, ‘Gulf opens door to public Jewish life amid Israel ties,’ AP News, March 9, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/bahrain-israel-united-arab-emirates-persian-gulf-tensions-holidays-57e419d14131d13049ee2a92a6b3484f.

[x] Samir Salama, ‘Bahrain: Manama synagogue restores Shabbat prayers after 74 years,’ Gulf News, August 24, 2021. https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/bahrain/bahrain-manama-synagogue-restores-shabbat-prayers-after-74-years-1.81765596.

[xi] Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, ‘Bahrain Celebrates First Bar Mitzvah in 16 Years,’ Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, August 22, 2021. https://www.gulfjewish.org/2021/bahrain-celebrates-first-bar-mitzvah-in-16-years/.

[xii] France 24, ‘Bahrain's Jews worship in public for first time in decades,’ France 24, September 14, 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210914-bahrain-s-jews-worship-in-public-for-first-time-in-decades.

[xiii] Bahrain News Agency, ‘King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence signs key deal,’ Bahrain News Agency, October 25, 2020. https://www.bna.bh/en/KingHamadGlobalCentreforPeacefulCoexistencesignskeydeal.aspx?cms=q8FmFJgiscL2fwIzON1+DuqHt0FrXudJXRvQ8LR9Q94=.

[xiv] Jewish Council of the Emirates, ‘About,’ Jewish Council of the Emirates, n.d. https://jceuae.ae/about-us/; Jewish UAE, ‘About Us,’ Jewish UAE, n.d. https://www.jewishuae.com/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/4922797/jewish/About-Us.htm.

[xv] Abu Dhabi Government Media Office, ‘Opening in Abu Dhabi 2022, The Abrahamic Family House Marks 20 Percent of Construction Progress,’ Abu Dhabi Government Media Office, June 15, 2021. https://www.mediaoffice.abudhabi/en/arts-culture/opening-in-abu-dhabi-the-abrahamic-family-house-marks-20-percent-of-construction/.

[xvi] Abu Dhabi Government Media Office, ‘Opening in Abu Dhabi 2022, The Abrahamic Family House Marks 20 Percent of Construction Progress.’

[xvii] France24, ‘No deal with Israel, but Saudi pushes outreach to Jews,’ France24, September 23, 2020. https://www.france24.com/en/20200923-no-deal-with-israel-but-saudi-pushes-outreach-to-jews; Rabbi March Schneier. Twitter post. January 20, 2020, 6:06 pm. https://twitter.com/RabbiMSchneier/status/1219259785654259712.

[xviii] Seth J. Franzman, ‘UAE Jewish community gears up for Purim and 24-hour megillah reading,’ The Jerusalem Post, February 24, 2021. https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uae-jewish-community-gears-up-for-purim-and-24-hour-megillah-reading-660023.

[xix] Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, ‘In Historic First, Jewish Communities commemorate Yom Hashoah in the Gulf,’ Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, April 2, 2021. https://www.gulfjewish.org/2021/in-historic-first-jewish-communities-commemorate-yom-hashoah-in-the-gulf-2/.

[xx] Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, ‘Jews in all 6 Gulf Countries join together for first Selichot Gathering in decades., Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, August 17, 2021. https://www.gulfjewish.org/2021/jews-in-all-6-gulf-countries-join-together-for-first-selichot-gathering-in-decades/.

[xxi] Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, ‘Jews in 6 Gulf Nations form first association to enhance regional Jewish life,’ Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, February 15, 2021. https://www.gulfjewish.org/2021/jews-in-6-gulf-nations-form-first-association-to-enhance-regional-jewish-life/.

[xxii] France 24, ‘Bahrain's Jews worship in public for first time in decades.