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Kuwait Virtual Jewish Tour

By Jason Levine

Jews of Kuwait

The history of the Jewish people in what is now Kuwait is closely tied to the history of the Jewish people in Iraq. Most of the original Jews fled to what is now Kuwait from Iraq in the 6th century B.C.E. following Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 586.

The next large Jewish migration to Kuwait came in 1776 when Sadeq Khan captured the Iraqi city of Basra during the Ottoman-Persian war. Khan and his men made life uncomfortable for the Jewish residents by imposing a “jizya tax” on non-Muslims. Ottoman rule stifled the Jewish industry in Iraq and a good number of Jews left for Kuwait.

The Jewish population in Kuwait boomed in the late 1800’s and there was a vibrant and successful Jewish community. Relations between Jews and Muslims were good at the time, with the Jewish market right next to the market mosque. The Jewish community also had a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with Sheikh Mubarak the Great.

The Jews made significant contributions to the Kuwaiti economy, becoming successful businessmen, bankers, and producers of products. During this time, Jews were heavily involved in the wine-making business and exported their product to neighboring countries. Devout Muslims are not allowed to consume alcohol and, because Jews were heavily involved in the alcohol trade, good relations did not last.

Sheikh Salim Al-Mubarak came to power in 1917 and did not appreciate the Jews selling alcohol in his country. He warned the Jews to stop producing their wine. Although no evidence exists to prove the Jews were kicked out of Kuwait, they were likely persuaded by threats to leave.

In the early 1900’s, it is estimated there were about 200 Jews in Kuwait, representing 80 families. By the end of the 1920’s, there was no sign of a Jewish community in Kuwait and there were a scant few individuals left. According to the U.S. State Department, no Jewish citizens remain in Kuwait; there are only a few dozen Jewish foreign resident workers.

Since there are no Jewish citizens, anti-Semitism is confined primarily to publications by self-proclaimed Islamists and conservative opinion writers. Clerics have also reportedly made statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews.

Relations with Israel

Kuwait does not recognize Israel. Teachers have been told to expunge any references to Israel or the Holocaust from English-language textbooks.

In October 2015, the International Olympic Committee revoked the Olympic Qualifier status from the Asian Shooting Championships taking place in Kuwait after an Israeli judge was denied an entry visa by the Kuwaiti Immigration Department. Kuwait’s National Olympic Committee has been accused of interfering with International Olympic Committee business on multiple occasions in the past, and this is another reason why the qualifying status was revoked.

Kuwait is one of the few countries that still strictly adheres to the Arab boycott. Kuwaiti law prohibits local companies from conducting business with Israeli citizens, including transporting Israeli passport holders on the country’s national airline. The U.S. Office of Antiboycott Compliance sanctioned Kuwait Airways for refusing to accept passengers with Israeli passports on flights from New York to London. In 2020, the airline agreed to pay a $700,000 fine, $100,000 of which was suspended for three years and would be waived if it committed no further violations.

In 2021, Kuwait reiterated its commitment to the boycott, which bans any product with even the remotest links to Israel. Any retailer found to be carrying goods with a connection to Israel will face “stiff penalties,” according to an official in the customs office.

Sources: “Kuwait,” Al-Rai, (September 10, 2014).
History of the Jews in Kuwait.
Report on Human Rights Practices for 2020 - Kuwait.
“Kuwait maintains “clear stance” on Israel boycott,” Arab Times, (July 31, 2022).