Interview with H.E Ambassador Houda NONOO
H.E. Ambassador Houda Nonoo
Kingdom of Bahrain
In 2008, you made history when you were appointed as the first Jewish Ambassador from an Arab country. What was that experience like for you?
Ambassador Houda Nonoo – I am very appreciative to His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and our former Foreign Minister H.E. Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa for appointing me to this important position and for their support. I was honored to serve my country as its Ambassador to the United States, a strategic partner for us.
In some ways, it is more surprising to non-Bahrainis that Bahrain appointed a Jewish ambassador, but in reality, His Majesty has always backed a policy of interfaith engagement. His Majesty has always supported equal rights and opportunities for people of all faiths and so it did not stick out as odd to me that a Jew would be appointed to this position.
During my time in the United States, I had the opportunity to meet with many Jewish community leaders and to attend Shabbat and holiday services with the Jewish communities in DC and New York.
The Ambassadors from the other Arab countries also welcomed me with open arms and knew I was Jewish and went out of their way to make sure that I was included.
What do the Abraham Accords mean to you?
AHN – As a citizen of this region, I am filled with excitement to see the construction of a new Middle East, one focused on coexistence and prosperity. I am immensely grateful to His Majesty, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and His Royal Highness, Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, for their leadership, vision, and courage to lead our nation proudly and boldly into the future through the signing of the Abraham Accords. I, like my fellow Bahraini citizens, express our support and enthusiasm, for the opportunity our leaders have seized and the promise it represents to build a better life with security and opportunity for all of us and for future generations still to come.
In November 2020, you visited Israel for the first time, what was that experience like for you?
HN – It was an honour and privilege to participate in the first official Bahraini delegation to Israel,
led by Foreign Minister H.E. Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani – flying on our national carrier, Gulf Air Flight number 972 – which was symbolic in itself. This was my very first visit to Israel. We were only on the ground for less than 12 hours but it was a surreal experience
During my five years serving in Washington, I made many new friends and was often asked if I had been to Israel. I always said, “Not yet.” In my heart, I hoped and prayed for the opportunity, but I was determined to wait for the moment when circumstances would allow such a visit. But, as a loyal and committed citizen of Bahrain, I naturally respected the reality of the situation. I could only dream. In November, that dream became a reality. Ironically, I had never been to Israel before but less than a week later, I was invited to participate in a second Bahraini delegation, this time with the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Co-existence.
Can you share with readers about the Jewish community in Bahrain?
AHN – The Jewish community in Bahrain – the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf – dates back to the 1880s when many Jewish families left Iraq in search of better economic opportunities and lifestyle. They were on their way to India and
the boat stopped in Bahrain and many families saw something special here and the opportunities it presented, and they decided to stay. Since then, we have become part of the fabric of Bahraini society.
Many of the Jewish families – including my own – were traders and started their own businesses such as money exchange, textiles, and electronics while others worked for the oil companies, banks and schools.
My grandfather was an elected member of the municipality council in 1934 and a number of us serve in various roles within government, including the Shura Council which is the Upper House of Parliament.
By the 1940’s, the Jewish population of Bahrain was around 1,000 people. The numbers dwindled in the late 1940s and 60s and today, there are less than 50. Despite being small in size, we are very proud to play a large role in Jewish life in the Gulf. We have the only operating Jewish cemetery and are proud to have the oldest – and only operational – synagogue in the Gulf. In August, we celebrated the first Bar Mitzvah in 16 years and held the first Shabbat minyan in 1947. The synagogue was full – there was not an empty chair in sight.
The young man read from the Torah that former senior White House adviser Jared Kushner commissioned in honor of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
It is incredibly special for us to use the Torah Jared commissioned in honor of His Majesty for the first time this weekend in the lead up to Bahrain’s first anniversary of signing the Abraham Accords which is all about creating a better life for the youth in our region – including this young man.
Each week, you tweet a photo for Shabbat. It has been a great way for us to learn about Bahrain. What inspired you to create the series?
AHN – I have always enjoyed connecting with people and after the Abraham Accords, I received many inquiries from media and Jews around the world, asking me about what this time meant for me, for our community and asking to learn more about Bahrain and our Jewish community. This became the impetus for me to rejoin Twitter and in many ways, the response was even more than I anticipated.
Many of the questions I receive center around a common theme – what is it like being Jewish in Bahrain? While I could continue to answer those questions, I wanted to do more, and to show just how accepting Bahrain, is of our religion.
I was inspired to create the Shabbat Shalom series where each Friday, I bring traditionally Jewish items – like my Shabbat candles and Kiddush cup – and the now famous Kedem bottle of grape juice – and take a picture of them with Bahraini landmarks such as the National Theatre of Bahrain, the Bahrain International Circuit and the Tree of Life.
So far, these two words, “Shabbat Shalom,” have created a buzz and have reached more than 2.5 million people from all over the world, who wish each other Shabbat Shalom because of these tweets. The feedback has been amazing – Jews, Muslims, and Christians from all over the world (the US, Canada, Africa, UK, Europe, the Gulf, Israel, other Middle Eastern countries, and Asia), all replying with a Shabbat Shalom greeting of their own and learning about Bahrain at the same time. My hope is that, as more people are vaccinated that they will come visit Bahrain in person and experience these sites for themselves but until then, I will continue to enjoy sharing these little slices of Bahrain with you all.
So far, these two words, “Shabbat Shalom,” have created a buzz and have reached more than 2.5 million people from all over the world
In February, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities launched and which you sit on the board of. What inspired the creation of the AGJC?
AHN – As Jewish life continues to grow in the Arabian Gulf as more Jews move to the region for business opportunities, there is a greater need for more kosher food options, Pesach programs in hotels, Jewish schools, youth programming, additional synagogues and Jewish infrastructure. The Gulf has many things to offer. For example, whereas antisemitism is on the rise in the West, we don’t have any issues with that here. There is a great lifestyle, and it is a wonderful place to raise a Jewish family.
The AGJC is a people-to-people network of the Jewish communities from the GCC countries, who are developing Jewish life in the region. While each community is independent, we share a common goal and vision: for Jewish life in the GCC to flourish for the benefit of both residents and visitors. Under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, based in Dubai, and president Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, based in Bahrain, we are partnering on different communal programs and services so that our resources, will enhance each other.
he Association’s board consists of members from all six Gulf countries, who together will forge the path forward for growing Jewish life in the Gulf.
Under the AGJC, The Beth Din of Arabia, is in the process of being established, to assist with issues pertaining to personal status, inheritance, and voluntary business dispute resolutions in the region. The Arabian Kosher Certification Agency is also in the process of being created to oversee kashrut regionally using the same set of standards throughout all six Gulf countries, thereby making it easier for Jewish individuals to live in or travel around the Gulf.
Where do you see Jewish life in the Gulf heading in the next 5-10 years?
AHN – Jewish life in the Gulf is going to continue to grow and as more Jews move to the region for business opportunities, there will be a greater need for more kosher food options, Pesach programs in hotels, Jewish schools and youth programming, additional synagogues and additional Jewish infrastructure. The Gulf has many things to offer. For example, whereas antisemitism is on the rise in the West, we don’t have any issues with that here. There is a great lifestyle and it is a wonderful place to raise a family.
The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities was created with this in mind so that we can help the Jewish communities of various sizes grow at their own appropriate pace.