“The peaceful co-existence we have with the Bahrainis is proof of the religious tolerance advocated by His Majesty the King, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.” – Nancy Khedouri, Jewish Shura council member.
The Jewish community in Bahrain primarily dates back to the 1800s – around 140 years ago – when a number of Iraqi Jews decided to settlethere. Smaller numbers of Jews also arrived from Iran. Many of them found a niche in the clothing industry.
As former Shura council member, Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo describes: “They were kind of misfits coming out of Iraq. In other words, they weren’t getting anywhere in Iraq, so they decided to try their luck in Bahrain.” Nonoo’s own grandfather at 12-years-old was among these Jewish arrivals. Even today, some members of this community continue to use a Jewish-Iraqi dialect of Arabic among themselves. Indeed, communal prayers are usually said in Arabic.
Even prior to the time of Islam there were flourishing Jewish and Christian communities in Bahrain, and there are periodic historical references (including in Jewish Talmudic writings) to Jews living on the islands of Bahrain, as well as throughout Eastern Saudi Arabia, which through much of the Islamic era constituted a single political region.
At its height during the 1920s, estimates vary of there being between around 800 – 1,500 members of the Manama Jewish community. The rabbi Jacob Cohen, who arrived from Bombay, is often credited as a key figure in establishing the Jewish religious practices of the community.
A synagogue was founded in the 1930s, thanks to a 1935 visit to Bahrain by members of the Cartier family, based in France and associated with the jewelry business. The Cartiers were inspired to donate the costs for the construction of a place of worship, including covering the expenses of a rabbi. Cartier’s interest in Bahrain was in part due to the islands during the early twentieth century being at the centre of the global pearl trade.
The 1947 creation of Israel represented a set-back for the community. As part of the region-wide reaction against the creation of Israel, some of the rioting (reportedly non-Bahrainis) focused on the synagogue. According to Houda Nonoo: “I don’t think it was Bahrainis who were responsible. It was people from abroad. Many Bahrainis looked after Jews in their houses.” This testimony is supported by British political advisor Charles Belgrave: “The leading Arabs were very shocked … most of them, when possible, had given shelter and protection to their Jewish neighbours.”
In the following years, much of the community resettled in Israel. However, Bahrain’s remaining Jews have been prosperous and successful in the post-independence Kingdom. The arrival of King Hamad to the throne in 1999 was a key turning point for religious freedoms. His new constitution, the National Action Charter (subsequently approved with 98.4% support, in a 2001 referendum) explicitly enshrined the rights of everybody to practice their faith, and King Hamad had personally close ties with members of the Jewish community and key figures from other faiths.
As part of the 2004 free-trade agreement with the US, Bahrain agreed to halt the enforcement of the boycott with Israel, making it slightly easier for Bahraini Jews to increase discrete contacts with Israel. Over the past few years there has been a steadily increasing pattern of Bahraini interactions with Jewish and Israeli entities, including joint participation in conferences and cultural interaction. Since 2015, King Hamad has led the joint celebration of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, bringing Jews and non-Jews together. Thus it has long been expected that steps would be put in place for the full normalization of relations when the time was right.
“The agreement changes everything;” Ebrahim Nonoo.
In recent decades the Jewish community has only numbered around 50 individuals, with their numbers bolstered by Jewish expats of other nationalities. However, as part of the vision for Bahrain to be a nation welcoming to multiple faiths and peoples, this small community has been a visible part of Bahraini life, with representation in the Shura Council (currently Nancy Khedouri, since 2010). The Shura Council has a designated seat for both a Jewish and Christian representative – appointed by the King.
“It is indeed a privilege to be part of the Law-making process with my multi-faith Colleagues, where we all enjoy Equality and Freedom of Expression and where we continue to strive to draft out Laws to be implemented, that will be fair, serving in the best interests of our Country and to all Citizens, regardless of Religious differences;” Nancy Khedouri
Houda Nonoo for several years was Bahrain’s ambassador to the US – arguably one of Bahrain’s most important diplomatic postings. Houda Nonoo was previously a Shura council member, as well as being head of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch society.
There are ongoing efforts to renovate the synagogue – which was rebuilt during the 1980s – as both a place of worship and a museum. A historic Jewish cemetery also continues to be in use. It was thus fitting that Jared Kushner, who played a major role in efforts to bring Arab states and Israel closer together, commemorated the Israel-Bahrain agreement by gifting the King of Bahrain a Torah scroll for the Synagogue.
There are hopes that the agreement with Israel will make the Jewish community an even more relevant and central part of Bahrain’s society, while encouraging other Jews from across the region to make Bahrain their home. The availability of flights to Israel and the increased ease of doing business and having cultural and social interactions with Israel is expected to be an incentive to rejuvenating Bahrain’s Jewish demographic.
We wish them every success and hope that the flourishing Jewish community will be an integral part of Bahrain’s social fabric for many centuries to come.