Introducing the Jews of Bahrain
By Maria Rita Corticelli
THE JEWISH people shared the land of Mesopotamia for many centuries during which they co-existed and contributed to the local cultures and societies. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1919) and the following wave of nationalism and self-determination against the European control of the area made this coexistence more fragile and they started to deal with some changed realities as persecution and discrimination become more commonplace. In 1933, in the newly established state of Iraq, Assyrian villagers — in the northern Iraqi town of Simele — were brutally murdered in a wave of ethnic violence which generated immense fear and unleashed diasporas of other religious minorities, which included the Jews who lived in the country as well. The survivors had to leave Iraq and found refuge in Bahrain, a strategic country for travel and trade where an existing Jewish community was already based (in Zubarah and the coastal towns of mainland Bahrain) since the 19th century when the lure of favourable trade conditions and the growing tensions between the Persian and Ottoman Empires prompted a major wave of migration. It was not difficult for these refugee families to establish businesses and thrive as a Jewish community since they were welcomed by the Muslim communities and their Iraqi-origin, religious compatriots alike.
Another strain in the interfaith relations between Muslims and Jews — across the Middle East — came during the Second World War when European antisemitism spread also in the areas not directly involved in the war causing even further diasporas. This was especially true in areas that were colonised (or under the influence) by France which had become a Nazi puppet state under the Vichy government. But British-held territories were not immune and in 1941, the Farhud pogrom,(1) which affected 15% of the Jewish community of Baghdad,(2) sparked another wave of diaspora in the Middle East, which intensified with the end of the war and the establishment of the state of Israel.(3) It was on this particular occasion that it was proposed:
All the Arabs of Palestine shall leave and be divided up among the neighbouring Arab countries. In exchange for this, all the Jews living in Arab countries will go to Palestine (...) The exchange of populations should be carried out in the same way that Turkey and Greece exchanged their populations. Special committees must be set up to deal with the liquidation of Jewish and Arab property.(4)
The Jewish exodus interested many Arab countries including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, which witnessed the difficulties lived by the Jews population, as a consequence of the Arab-Israeli war. However, for the most part, Jewish life continued throughout the hardships delivered to the region. This is particularly true of Bahrain in the Gulf which never saw any real cleavage emerge between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Indeed, over the decades since the departure of the British (1971) the small Jewish community in Bahrain has thrived and integrated so well that it is nearly impossible to distinguish Jews from the much larger Muslim and Christian communities on the island. They share in each others events and customs and work side-by-side. Indeed, it is significant that Bahraini Jews have even gone on to represent Bahrain in some of the highest diplomatic and political positions. For instance, in 2008 (until 2013), Ambassador Houda Nonoo became both the first female Bahraini Ambassador to the United States and, most importantly, the first Jewish Ambassador from the Arab region.(5)
Her cousin, Nancy Kadouri — author of a book on the history of Bahrain’s Jewish community, titled From Our Beginnings to Present (2007) — was appointed to the Shura Council, the upper house of the National Assembly.
Fast forward to more contemporary times and it is clear that Bahrain’s native Jewish community has been a positive driver towards reshaping the Middle East by working diligently on the twin-peaks of interfaith dialogue and supporting the main mission of the Abraham Accords — signed by Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE with Israel in 2020 — which sought to kickstart a new paradigm in the region that includes both an integrated (into the wider Middle East) and an independent Palestinian state. While this goal is slowly being worked towards, it is important to take note of the journey that the Jews of Bahrain have undertaken. Starting as trade pioneers and then as refugees of ethnic violence in Iraq, the Jews found safe havens in Bahrain. This was to last throughout the turbulence of the years until the contemporary period where they make substantial contributions to Bahraini political and economic life.
(1) The violent dispossession carried out against the Jewish immediately after the British victory in the Anglo-Iraqi war.
(2) Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, The Farhud, Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-farhud, accessed May 16, 2023.
(4) Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 25.
(5) Kaiicid Dialogue Center, The Advisor Forum, Ambassador Houda Nonoo, https://www.kaiciid.org/من-نحن/حوكمة-المركز/ambassador%C2%A0houda%C2%A0nonoo , accessed 16 May, 2023.