Houda Ezra Nonoo is a Bahraini of Iraqi descent representing an embattled Sunni
dynasty that has ruled over a Shi’ite majority for centuries.
circumstances weren’t loaded enough, Nonoo, Bahrain’s envoy to Washington, is
the first Jewish ambassador in the Arab world’s recorded history.
protests have shaken the tiny island kingdom for the past week, with at least
eight Bahrainis killed and hundreds wounded.
Tensions remain high after
seesaw battles saw riot police open fire on protesters trying to reclaim
Manama’s landmark Pearl Square, and on Monday, a group of protesters called for
the ouster of the monarchy as part of sweeping demands in response to the call
to end the uprising.
Bahrain is a key US partner in the region, the home
base for the US Navy’s massive 5th Fleet. Washington is, without
question, Bahrain’s most important ally. But throughout the popular revolt that
has gripped her country, Nonoo has stayed mum. Phone and e-mail requests for
comment by The Jerusalem Post
to the Bahraini Embassy in Washington on Monday
Nonoo, 47, was appointed in 2008, after serving as a
legislator in the kingdom’s 40-member lower house of parliament, and previously
as the head of a Bahraini human rights organization. Some local media
outlets criticized the appointment, saying that as a Jew, Nonoo could have
difficulty defending Bahrain’s refusal to recognize Israel. Issues of loyalty to
the Jewish state were also raised.
Both she and King Hamad Al Khalifa
dismissed those concerns. In an interview with Britain’s Jewish Chronicle
in 2008, Nonoo said, “At the end of the day, I’m an Arab. I describe myself as
an Arab Jew. I’m proud of it. I was asked by someone in England whether I
felt Jewish first or Bahraini first. I said I was Bahraini first. He got
quite offended, but that’s the way I feel.”
Nonoo’s cousin Ebrahim Daoud
Nonoo also served a number of years in parliament before retiring to private
Bahrain’s Jewish population is minuscule – 36 souls at last
count. But the community once numbered as many as 1,500, according to Nancy
Khadhori, a Jewish lawmaker who replaced Nonoo in parliament last
year. “The Jews of Bahrain are proud to be Bahraini, proud to be Arab,”
Khadouri said in a 2009 New York Times
profile of Bahrain’s Jews. “We are truly
blessed to be living in an open and hospitable society.”
In the 1940s,
Khadouri said, the community numbered 600. But Israel’s creation in 1948
led to riots and anti-Jewish violence, and most of the country’s Jews fled to
Britain, the US and Israel. Nonoo has family here, though she cannot legally
visit them or speak to them by a direct phone line.
Al Khalifa has made
efforts to reach out to Bahraini Jews at home and abroad. He lifted the island’s
boycott of Israeli products in 2004, and in a later visit to Britain urged
expatriate Bahraini Jews to come home. Bahrain has the Persian Gulf’s
only synagogue, though it rarely operates, as worshipers can’t usually form a
In the Chronicle
interview, Nonoo tread lightly over the Israel
question. “We don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel,” she said. “Having
said that, our foreign minister at the United Nations General Assembly in
September put forward an initiative that asked for all Middle Eastern countries,
without exception, to meet together. In an interview, when he was asked what
countries, he specified all countries, including Turkey, Israel and
Asked how ambassadors of the other 21 Arab states feel about
having a female colleague, and a Jewish one at that, she said, “Yes, I was
worried about how I would be received, but it hasn’t caused any problems
whatsoever...There is already a female ambassador from Oman, so she set
a precedent. I had a welcome dinner from the ambassador of Syria and the
ambassador of Iran. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Iraq, so the
Iraqi ambassador was very interested to learn of my background.”
upbringing was just as international. Her early education was in a convent — a
Jewish girl in a Muslim country being taught by Italian nuns. “There were
Muslims, Hindus and Christians, so I didn’t feel any different from anyone else.
I never had any discrimination. We kept our religion at home. It was more
or less impossible to keep Shabbat because we had school on Saturdays, but
whatever we could do, we did.”
At 15 she moved to England, attending the
now-defunct Jewish boarding school Carmel College, then earning a bachelor’s
degree in economics and a master’s in business administration. She
thought of staying in the UK, but when her father was killed in a car accident
in 1993, Nonoo returned to Bahrain.
A cosmopolitan Bahraini patriot,
Nonoo insists she hasn’t abandoned her roots. “Even now, we keep the High Holy
Days — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Passover, plus Purim and Hannukka, because
they’re fun,” she said.
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