Gulf Arab adherence to Jewish minority reflected in Bahrain cemetery restoration project
DUBAI: For more than a century, a small cemetery in the heart of Manama served as the final resting place for members of Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community, which is the most established of its kind in the Gulf Cooperation Council region.
Located a short distance from the House of the Ten Commandments, the oldest synagogue in the Gulf, the cemetery receives fewer visitors these days than the nearby Christian cemetery at St. Christopher’s Cathedral. But for the Jews of Bahrain, it remains a treasured part of their heritage.
Thanks to a new donor-funded initiative, efforts have begun to restore the site, which is recognized as the only Jewish cemetery in the Gulf. The project, launched by the Association of Jewish Communities of the Gulf on January 16 to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, aims to fund renovations and maintenance of the site. The AGJC was founded in 2021 as a network of communities to develop Jewish life in the GCC region.
“For more than 100 years, our family members have been buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Bahrain,” said Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, AGJC President, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ten Commandments House and Chief of the Bahrain’s Jewish community. Arab News.
“Part of our community planning is to ensure that our cemetery is well cared for for generations to come. We are very grateful that the AGJC chose this for their Tu B’Shevat project.
As part of the renovation project, weathered headstones are cleaned and trees planted.
“We are planting trees in the Bahrain Jewish Cemetery, which is akin to bringing back to life those who have lived in the beautiful community of Bahrain for centuries and made Bahrain their final resting place for eternity,” said said Rabbi Elie Abadie, the oldest. A Jewish cleric from the GCC region, told Arab News.
“Trees offer life; they provide shade, oxygen and nutrients. We plant trees in the cemetery, the final resting place of the spirits, as a renewal for them. Trees take time to grow, so we don’t grow them for this generation, but for the next, as our ancestors did for us.
Bahrain’s willingness to embrace its Jewish minority and celebrate its heritage has made it a trailblazer for the region. The island kingdom’s former ambassador to the United States, Houda Nonoo, is a prominent member of the Gulf Jewish community.
In June 2019, Bahrain hosted the “From Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, during which the administration of US President Donald Trump presented the economic aspects of its peace plan between Israel and Palestine.
In August the following year, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates issued a joint statement with Israel called the Abraham Accords, which led to the normalization of relations between the two Arab countries and Israel. The agreements also paved the way for warmer relations between Israel and Oman, Morocco and Sudan.
Israel considers itself a “Jewish and democratic state”, while Islam is the official religion of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Abraham Accords was chosen as the name of the accord to signify the common origin of belief between Judaism and Islam, both of which are Abrahamic religions that strictly espouse the monotheistic worship of the God of Abraham.
Since signing the agreements, the UAE and Bahrain have invested heavily in their bilateral relations with Israel and encouraged the celebration of Jewish history and heritage in the region.
At the same time, Gulf leaders have strengthened their political ties with Israel. Late last year, for example, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, visited the United Arab Emirates where he met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
Bennett also met Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
Bahrain’s modern Jewish community was established in the 1880s when hundreds of Jews arrived from Iraq and Iran in search of a better life. Many settled in the Al-Hatab neighborhood of Manama, where they first worked in the garment industry.
In 1935, as the community began to flourish, an Iranian immigrant named Shimon Cohen founded a synagogue. However, the building was destroyed in 1947 during unrest related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Until the formal signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC, Bahrain’s remnant Jewish community, numbering about 50 people, practiced their faith largely behind closed doors. Since then, however, their synagogue has been renovated at a cost of 60,000 Bahraini dinars ($160,000) and religious services are once again held openly.
Bahrain is not the only regional state that hosts a Jewish minority. Around 1,000 Jews, all expatriates, are believed to live in the United Arab Emirates. As business ties with Israel strengthen and Israeli tourists continue to flock to the Emirates, this number is expected to grow, along with economic, technological, cultural and security cooperation.
“I went to Dubai twice last year and would like to go to Bahrain,” said Yossi Levy, 41, an Israeli who lives in Jerusalem. “We felt safe and all my friends too. I’m into the heritage aspect – and the shopping is out of this world.
Israeli tour groups have become more common in Dubai over the past two years. And until COVID-19 restrictions curbed international travel, the city’s hotels served a growing Israeli clientele.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, around 200,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the normalization of relations between the two countries in 2020.
“There will be many more when COVID-19 finally goes away,” Levy said. “I hope we can develop heritage links. It is important.”
In most parts of the Arab world, however, Jewish populations are on the verge of extinction. Iraq, once home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, now has only four worshippers. Last year, their patriarch, Dhafer Eliyahu, died.
Baghdad has a semi-functional synagogue but it has no rabbi and no services have been held there since before the US-led invasion in 2003. An estimated 220,000 Jews of Iraqi descent currently live in Israel.
Turkey and Iran have small Jewish communities, while Lebanon, Syria and Egypt are said to have only a few dozen Jewish residents between them. Yemeni Jews are estimated to number in the hundreds at most.
Against this bleak backdrop, Bahrain is seen by many in the Jewish community as a particularly successful example of peaceful interfaith coexistence.
“The revival of the Jewish community in Bahrain and the development of a community in the United Arab Emirates is nothing short of magnificent,” Rabbi Abadie told Arab News. “It’s nostalgic, after decades of no Jewish presence.”
Abdullah Issa, a 39-year-old Muslim and Bahraini national, said his country had set a strong example for others to follow.
“Bahrain and other GCC countries have proven to the world that coexistence and the values of human brotherhood as a whole can be achieved through willpower and determination,” he told Arab News.
“Although changing perceptions and attitudes can be difficult, with the simple act of planting a tree, the government and people of Bahrain show this coexistence and demonstrate that human brotherhood must be achieved.”
AGJC President Ebrahim Nonoo said he was delighted to welcome Muslim visitors to the Ten Commandments House, which helps to advance the goal of cultural dialogue.
“All of this is heart-warming,” he told Arab News. “You have Muslims going into the synagogue all the time. They see the Ten Commandments, which are also written in Arabic, and they say it’s like in the Koran. The similarities make them comfortable.
“The situation in Bahrain is unique. This is something people have a lot to learn from. The coexistence here is simply wonderful.