Washington - Bahrain is expected to appoint a member of its tiny Jewish community as ambassador to the United States, the small Persian Gulf state’s top diplomatic posting.
The expected nomination of Houda Ezra Nonoo would be historic in several respects: She would not only become the first Jew to represent a Muslim state, but also the first woman and the first human rights activist to head Bahrain’s diplomatic mission in Washington.
The appointment, while not yet officially confirmed, is being described by Middle East experts not only as a sign of an increased effort by Bahrain to include women and religious minorities in the political process, but also as an indication that the country is taking seriously America’s concerns about democracy and equality in the monarchy.
“If you’re a Bahraini and you want to improve your image without making fundamental changes that could endanger the regime’s stability, this nomination would be a pretty good idea,” said David Mack, a former American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who is currently serving an adjunct scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute.
According to Mack, while the Bahraini government has been widely criticized for not sufficiently representing the interests of the country’s Shi’ite majority, its record has improved on gender equality and religious freedom for minority groups, including Jews.
There are currently 36 Jews living in Bahrain, all in the capital, Manama. According to press reports, the local Jews, most of whom are descendants of Iraqi and Iranian immigrants, enjoy full religious freedom and are allowed to practice their faith openly. As the Jewish population dwindled from a high of several thousand in the early 1940s, the only Jewish synagogue in Bahrain closed its doors, but community members say they still hold the keys and are allowed to use the synagogue for worship. Manama also has a Jewish cemetery.
In a January interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Nancy Kadouri, Nonoo’s cousin and a member of the Jewish community, said Bahraini Jews enjoy excellent ties with the government.
“Our king really loves the Jews,” Kadouri said, referring to King HamAd bin Isa al Khalifa, who has ruled the kingdom since 1999.
Nonoo first made her mark on Bahraini public life in 2006, when she was chosen to head the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society. The group fights for women’s rights and is often at odds with the country’s strict Islamic rulings on issues relating to divorce and child custody. Nonoo was the only woman in an Arab country to head such an organization. She is also a member of the Shura Council, a consultative branch of Bahrain’s government.
Yasmina Britel, a spokeswoman for the Bahraini Embassy in Washington, cautioned that a royal decree announcing Nonoo’s diplomatic appointment, as is required by Bahraini law, had yet to be made.
“Her name is among those mentioned for the post,” Britel said, “but there are other names, too.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.