The Unlikely Emissary
That was last year, before thousands of protestors, inspired by the political change unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in the region, poured into the center of Bahrain’s capital city, Manama, overwhelming Bahrain’s carefully constructed multicultural image and spotlighting the cleavage between the nation’s Sunni elite and its Shiites, who make up 70 percent of the population; before hundreds of heavily armed police officers rushed the square, killing at least seven and wounding hundreds; before news of Bahrain was on the front page of The New York Timeseach morning, and back when Nonoo was best known in Washington circles for her improbable background and her enthusiastic championing of Bahraini moderation.
Houda Nonoo is one of Bahrain’s 36 Jews. “We are all cousins,” says Nonoo. “We are all related to each other.” Of these, a high proportion hold important political positions. One of her cousins is Nancy Khedouri, the Jewish community’s historian, who was appointed last year to the Shura Council, Bahrain’s upper chamber of parliament. Another cousin, Ibrahim Nonoo, was named to the National Human Rights Authority last May. In last year’s elections, Menashe Cohen, also Jewish, served as the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society’s election monitoring committee.
The modern Jewish community in Bahrain dates back to the early 1900s. Like Houda’s grandfather Ebrahim Nissim Nonoo, other Jews migrated to the island from Iraq as well as from Iran and India. The immigrants carried the Mizrachi traditions of their native lands to Manama and quickly built strongholds of Jewish life: a synagogue, a mikvah and a cemetery.
Ebrahim Nonoo started out in Bahrain as a zerryattiya—someone who takes silver and gold strips from discarded clothing and melts them down for re-selling. He went on to establish the Bahrain Banking Company, making his fortune by trading in silver and gold. Other Bahraini Jewish families amassed their wealth in various trades—the Yadgars through textiles, the Khedouris by importing tablecloths and bed linens. Ebrahim Nonoo became a member of the Manama Municipality, the capital’s city council; according to his granddaughter, he was the first member of the Nonoo family to enter politics.
The Bahraini Jewish community was prosperous, with a part of town named after it: Al-Mutanabi Road—where all the businesses were closed on Saturdays—was known as Suq al-yahoud or the “Jew’s market.” By 1948 there were an estimated 1,500 Jews in Bahrain, according to Khedouri. The Jews, she says, “got along peacefully with their neighbors and were involved in all aspects of Bahraini life.”
That is why the community was shocked when, following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, rioters tore through the Jewish quarter in Manama, looting houses and destroying property. Scores of Jews were injured, one woman died and the Torah scrolls were stolen from the synagogue. Jews such as Nonoo and Khedouri have said that the perpetrators of these attacks were Muslims from abroad living in Bahrain, not native Bahrainis. Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, the British advisor to Bahraini rulers from 1926 until 1957, confirms this in his memoirs, writing that “the leading Arabs were very shocked…most of them, when possible, had given shelter and protection to their Jewish neighbors.”
Still, Bahraini Jews left en masse, some emigrating to Israel, others to England or America. Unlike in most Arab countries, they were allowed to leave with their property, although they were forced to give up their citizenship. An estimated 500 to 600 Jews remained in Bahrain until riots broke out after the Six-Day War in 1967.