Bahrain elections 311 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
MANAMA, Bahrain – It’s not often an observant Jew like me, living in New
York, gets to spend Hanukka with a bunch of Arab diplomats in the Persian Gulf.
But I found myself warmly welcomed when I showed up for the recent Manama
Dialogue, a conference sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic
Studies and hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain.
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Mindful of Shabbat, my
hosts had arranged for me to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the main
conference site. At the front desk, clerks appended a note to my room’s
electronic key card: “Please assist him to open the door
After watching the sun set on the Friday I was in Bahrain,
knowing that Israel was hundreds of miles to the west across the Arabian
deserts, I prayed, recited Kiddush and ate my LaBriute instant-warming kosher
dinner. Then I emptied my pockets – no eruvs in Bahrain, at least for now – and
headed outside past heavily armed Bahrain security forces and into the
conference to hear US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton address the opening
When I met Sheikh Khalid, the foreign minister, he greeted me
with a jolly “Happy Hanukka!” I had come to Bahrain as a representative of the
American Council for World Jewry to hear Arab policymakers talk about what’s on
their minds, and I learned a few things while getting to watch some interesting
On Friday night, both Iran’s foreign minister and the U.S.
secretary of state shared a ballroom, though their eyes did not meet. With the
VIP table positioned perpendicular to the dais, Iranian Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki was able to avoid looking at Clinton during or after her
speech, though she repeatedly tried to catch his glance. Mottaki sat through her
remarks and the question and- answer without ever turning his head or displaying
any expression. His aides, however, took diligent notes.
spoke the next morning, I asked one of the technicians to “show me” how the
electronic translation device works, so I could listen to a translation of his
remarks without overtly violating the Sabbath by handling the device
It wasn’t as if I was the only Jew in the kingdom; Bahrain has
been home to a small but active Jewish community for more than a century. The
kingdom has a newly appointed member of parliament who is Jewish; its US
ambassador is Jewish, too. Both are women. On my next visit to Bahrain, I hope
to visit the synagogue.
Its geographic proximity to Iran makes Bahrain,
like many Persian Gulf states, nervous about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear
program. Jordan’s King Abdullah avoided all reference to – and reportedly all
contact with – the Iranian delegates.
For their part, some of the Iranian
delegates privately expressed satisfaction with an American empire that is
overextended and compromised as a result of its overseas
“Thank you for invading Iraq,” one said.
Most of the
Arabs on hand treated the notion that Iran’s nuclear program is intended only
for peaceful purposes as an obvious joke.
The conversations at the
conference weren’t only about Iran. In off-the-record sessions on Iraq and
Yemen, generals and ministers spoke candidly. In his public keynote address,
King Abdullah told his fellow Arabs that they must do more to show Israelis what
peace would look like before time runs out.
In the Abu Dhabi airport on
my way back home, I picked up The National, a newspaper published in the United
Arab Emirates that carried an Associated Press report on the international
effort to extinguish the Carmel forest fire in Israel. Innocuous talk of Israel
is not so remarkable here, where pragmatism and economics often trump ideology
The same goes for us. If Iran’s foreign minister can sit in
on a speech by Clinton, we as Jews can afford to be in the same room and maybe
hold the door open for them. Even on Shabbat, and maybe especially on
The writer, policy director of the American Council for World
Jewry, attended the Manama Dialogue as a guest of the Bahrain Foreign Ministry.