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Bahrain Virtual Jewish History Tour

Ariel Schein

According to Talmudic references, Jews have lived in Bahrain since ancient times. It was also recorded in Arabic sources that Jews lived in Hajar, the capital of Bahrain, in 630 C.E. and refused to convert to Islam when Muhammad sent an army to occupy the territory.

Benjamin of Tudela recorded in the 12th century that nearly 500 Jews lived in Qays and that a population of 5,000 resided in al-Qatifa. Benjamin also recounted that these Jews controlled the local pearl industry.

In the late 19th century, Jews from Iraq, and some from Iran and India settled in Bahrain, beginning with the Yadgar family, who came to Bahrain from Iraq in 1880. The community thrived in local commerce and crafts. For instance the Yadgars became wealthy from the textile trade. Other prominent Jewish families, such as the Nonoos, became wealthy in the banking industry. One local Jewish man, Rouben D. stated, “My family came to Bahrain in 1914. Nothing happened to make us leave Iraq. My grandfather was a trader and when he came here, he just decided he wanted to live here.” The Jewish community consecrated a small synagogue in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Nancy Khedouri, a Bahraini Jew writing a book on the community, estimates that at its largest, Bahrain was home to as many as 1,500 Jews.

Before the establishment of the State of Israel, nearly 600 Jews lived in Bahrain. In fact, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were so many Jewish-owned businesses along Al-Mutanabi Road that it was called “Jews’ Street” and all the shops would close for the Jewish Sabbath. Things changed with the birth of the Jewish State. Anti-Semitic riots erupted and the synagogue was burned down. In 1947, many Jews immigrated to Israel after several anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community. In 1948, many Muslims foreigners came into Bahrain and initiated massive protests over the creation of Israel; it was these foreigners, and not the Bahrainis, who caused the destruction of the local synagogue and several Jewish homes. Many Jewish families hid from the conflict in Bahraini Muslim homes, until things settled down. Nevertheless, after a few years, most of the Jewish community left Bahrain for the United States or England. By the 1960s, about 200 to 300 Jews remained in Bahrain, but once riots broke out again following the Six Day War in 1967, virtually the entire Jewish community left the country.

Today, there are about 30 Jews in Bahrain out of a total population of 700,000. While the community can rarely make a minyan, Bahrain is the only country in the Persian Gulf with any kind of Jewish community or synagogue. The community also maintains a small Jewish cemetery. Abraham David Nonoo, the Jewish community’s unofficial leader and a member of Bahrain’s forty-man Shura, or parliamentary council, recently renovated the country’s synagogue with his own funds after the roof began to fall in. Since the synagogue is no longer in use, the Jewish community had considered converting the building for another use or donating it to charity, but the Bahraini government insisted it remain a synagogue. However, both the synagogue and cemetery are always closed. The government has also offered the Jewish community a piece of land to rebuild the synagogue that was destroyed in 1948.

The Jewish community in Bahrain has no rabbi, so religious ceremonies are conducted abroad. The last Jewish funeral in Bahrain was in 2001, and the community barely managed to get a minyan. On religious holidays, services are conducted in a congregant’s home. According to Houda Ezra Nonoo, “We keep Rosh Hashanah and Passover and the other holidays in our homes. When my son had his Bar Mitzvah, I flew a rabbi over from London for it.” There are no yeshivas or Jewish schools in Bahrain so all Jewish education takes place in the home. Furthermore, children are sent to one of three schools: public school, Catholic school, or private “American” school. The majority of Jewish boys were sent to public school, where much of the religious education was centered on the Koran. The majority of Jewish families sent their daughters to the American school. Most of the Jewish families of Bahrain do not believe that boys and girls should be educated together. Today, most of the Jews who remain in Bahrain are single, as there are so few Jews in Bahrain and Jews and Arabs rarely intermarry.

Ironically, in a region filled with religious tension, the Jews in Bahrain feel comfortable and welcomed. Bahraini Jews have equal rights along with their Muslim neighbors. “When the late Amir (Shaikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa) passed away last year, the present Amir (Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa) called the Jewish community together and told us there was nothing to worry about, the government would continue with its same policy. He assured us nothing would change.”

Indeed, those Jews remaining in Bahrain today claim they feel no discrimination. The Khedouri family is Bahrain’s leading importer of tablecloths and linens. Ninety-five percent of customers at Rouben Rouben’s electronics business are Bahraini and the government is his largest corporate consumer.In 2008, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa issued a royal decree officially appointing female Jewish lawmaker Houda Nonoo as the Bahrain ambassador to the United States. Nonoo, whose family is originally from Iraq, lives in Bahrain with her husband and two sons amd had previously served for three years as a legislator in Bahrain’s all-appointed, 40-member Shura Council. She is the first Jew, much less the first Jewish woman, in the Arab world to become ambassador.

In November 2013, Bahrain announced that Nonoo's term as U.S. ambassador had ended and the Jewish diplomat returned to her country where she was tapped to work in the Foreign Ministry.

Rabbi Moshe Levin, director of the Conference of European Rabbis, was invited to light Chanukah candles in the Palace of the King of Bahrain on December 8, 2015. This is the first such event to take place since the Israel was established, and an estimated 50 Jews were present for the ceremony.

Relations with Israel

The only restriction on Bahraini Jews is that they are unable to visit Israel because they hold Bahraini passports. Relations between Israel and Bahrain seemed to be improving in the early 1990s when a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict seemed to be approaching. Yossi Sarid, a member of the Knesset, visited Bahrain to set up a trade office in Oman and visited the Jewish synagogue and cemetery.  Once the intifada broke out however, the trade office in Oman was closed. Bahrain did agree to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel in exchange for a free-trade agreement with the United States in 2004.

In February 2016, Israel’s Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara claimed that an Israeli hospital had recently performed a life-saving surgery on a Bahraini Princess. Kara revealed the previously secret fact that in 2010, an unnamed Bahraini Princess had an unspecified life-saving procedure performed at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. With little chance of survival in her home country, the Princess was invited to have the operation performed in the United States but opted to have the surgery done in Israel. The decision to treat the Princess was approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and helped improve Israel-Bahrain relations behind the scenes.

In 2017, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalif denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and encouraged his citizens to freely travel to the country despite the fact that Bahrain and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations.

Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s regional security and counter-terrorism department, represented Israel at the Working Group on Maritime and Aviation Security meeting held in Manama. The meeting, co-hosted by Bahrain, the United States and Poland, is part of the so-called Warsaw Process, which started with a meeting in the Polish capital several weeks earlier to discuss Iran and regional stability.

In June 2019, Bahrain hosted the U.S.-backed “Peace to Prosperity” meeting in Manama, which focused on the economic side of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan and was promoted as the first part of Washington's long-delayed broader political blueprint to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

One sign of the warming ties with Israel was the decision by Bahraini authorities in April 2020 to shut down an event organized by supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement planning to discuss the dangers of Gulf states’ normalizing relations with Israel.

Sources: World Jewish Congress;
“The Jews of Bahrain”;
“Island Girl” by Michael Rosenbloom;
Encyclopedia Judaica;
“Life’s good for Jews of Bahrain — as long as they don’t visit Israel.” JTA, (October 18, 2006);
“Low Profile But Welcome: A Jewish Outpost in the Gulf.” The Independent, (November 2, 2007);
“Bahraini King selects Jewish ambassador.” The Jerusalem Post, (May 29, 2008);
“The Arab envoy...who’s Jewish.” The Jewish Chronicle (June 13, 2008);
JTA (November 17, 2013);
“King of Bahrain Lights Hanukkah Candles With Rabbi,” Haaretz (December 9, 2015);
Raphael Ahren. “Bahraini princess had life-saving surgery in Israel, deputy minister says,” Times of Israel (February 9, 2016);
Tom Tugend.  Bahrain King Denounces Arab Boycott of Israel, Says Countrymen May Visit, Jerusalem Post (September 17, 2017);
“In rare formal visit, Israeli official attends anti-Iran conference in Bahrain,” Times of Israel, (October 21, 2019);
“Bahrain shuts down event criticising normalisation with Israel,” Middle East Eye, (May 11, 2020).