Bahrain’s Jewish envoy to Washington stays mum

Houda Ezra Nonoo, a Bahraini of Iraqi descent representing an embattled Sunni dynasty, is first Jewish ambassador of an Arab state.

Houda Ezra Nonoo is a Bahraini of Iraqi descent representing an embattled Sunni dynasty that has ruled over a Shi’ite majority for centuries.
If those circumstances weren’t loaded enough, Nonoo, Bahrain’s envoy to Washington, is the first Jewish ambassador in the Arab world’s recorded history.
Street 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 went unanswered.
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 business.
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 minyan.
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 Iran.”
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.”
Nonoo’s 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.