Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo recalled a “funny” conversation she had while hosting a large reception at the Bahraini Embassy in Washington, where a man came up to her inquiring if she worked there. After confirming she did, he then confided he was the only Jew in attendance.
However, Nonoo had a confession of her own. “No, you’re not,” she said. “Because I am also Jewish.”
Despite Nonoo’s explanation of the peaceful coexistence Bahrain’s Jewish community enjoyed, the guest walked away in disbelief that a Jewish woman could be employed by the embassy of an Arab country.
He returned 10 minutes later to ask what she did at the embassy. His skepticism only increased when she told him, “I’m the ambassador here,” prompting him to ask if she was married to the king to get the position.
His perplexed response was not atypical for Americans or others outside Bahrain, but Nonoo’s appointment to the prestigious post was not at all surprising to Bahrainis, who have always welcomed and granted full citizenship rights to the small indigenous Jewish community.
She considers herself both Arab and Jewish “because that is what I am.”
Nonoo, who served as ambassador from 2008 to 2013, recalled the incident during a “Touro Talks” program held recently over Zoom with Touro College and University president Dr. Alan Kadish, who accepted an invitation to come to Bahrain with a delegation from Touro. In a tweet after the event, she wrote that the response she received from viewers from the United States, Bahrain, Israel, the United Kingdom, South America, Canada, Egypt, Spain and other places had been “amazing.”
“Bahrain has a deep-rooted history as being a center of Jewish life in the Gulf,” she explained of her 4.7 million-population homeland, which she said offers “tremendous business opportunities and a wonderful quality of life.”
The 50 Jews who comprise the small community trace their roots back about 140 years to the late 1800s, when a group of Iraqi Jews arrived seeking economic opportunities.
“We have always been open and proud to be Jewish in Bahrain,” said Nonoo, who remains the first and only Jewish ambassador from an Arab country, adding that her homeland is committed to “peace and tolerance” toward all religions.
Jews, including members of her own family, have been appointed to government posts for decades. Those of her grandparents’ generation told stories of Muslim neighbors helping to heat their food on Shabbat. Nonoo said today they continue to celebrate weddings and other important events together. Many Muslims have visited the recently renovated synagogue, the oldest in the Gulf. The refurbishing, completed in February, was done to accommodate the increasing number of Jewish tourists. A Torah scroll was commissioned in the name of Bahrain’s ruler since 2002, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The Ritz-Carlton in Manama is currently renovating its kitchens to offer kosher food and is hiring a full-time mashgiach. Other hotels are offering pre-packaged kosher food to guests.
“Our community is flourishing,” said Nonoo. “We are blessed to live in an Arab country that provides equal opportunities to us, as it does to citizens and residents of all religious backgrounds.”
Nonoo currently serves as ambassador at Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and previously served as nonresident ambassador to Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Mexico. Prior to joining the ministry, Nanoo was appointed by the king to the Shura Council—the upper house of the country’s Parliament—where she served on the Committee for Finance and Economic Affairs.
She is a board member of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) and of Bahrain’s Jewish community, known as the House of the Ten Commandments. She is a member or board member of other interreligious, business, human rights and child protection organizations.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed the historic Abraham Accords in September 2020, normalizing relations with Israel—with Nonoo in attendance at the White House signing ceremony.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed travel and other initiatives between the two countries, Nanoo expects significant tourism and economic cooperation in the future in such fields as oil, gas, manufacturing, logistics information, cybersecurity, education and financial services.
The Israeli-Bahrain Medical Cooperation Agreement between Sheba Medical Center and Bahrain’s Salmaniya Medical Complex will allow for a series of exchange programs and collaborations in medical training, innovation and research.
Israel’s state-owned water company, Mekorot, has signed a $3 million deal to provide Bahrain’s electricity and water authority with consulting services on water projects and sharing of technology.
“I believe that the growing partnership between Bahrain and Israel will lead to a sustainable peace in the region, “said Nanoo.
Although direct flights between the two countries have been delayed by the pandemic, they are expected to start in August.
In November Nanoo herself was part of Bahrain’s first delegation to Israel and has saved the tickets, which she plans to frame. “It was just [so] emotional sitting on that plane,” she recalled. and then after disembarking, “The air of Tel Aviv hitting my face, it felt like I had come to my second home.”
Feeling “I was like a kid at Disneyland” on the drive to their meetings in Jerusalem, she used her lunch break during the one-day trip to sneak out of the hotel for a quick trip to the Western Wall, “and those 10 minutes I had there were so emotional,” she said. “I’ve seen pictures on TV, but I never actually thought that I would be standing there in person.”
Nonoo would come back later that week, this time for six days as a member of a delegation of the King Hamad Global Center, returning to the Kotel, visiting family and friends and bringing back a mezuzah of Jerusalem stone, now “proudly” affixed to the doorpost of the community’s synagogue.
Nonoo estimates there are about 1,000 Jews in the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who came together in February to share resources and allow their communities to “forge a path forward” through the AGJC, including creating the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency. Virtual events have been held for Purim, La B’ Omer and Passover.
Nonoo believes their future is bright, and as business opportunities bring more Jews to the region there will be a need for more kosher food options, synagogues, Jewish schools and youth programming and culture.
“We can only go up now,” she said “There’s no way back. We’re definitely on the right path.”