Bahraini activists find common ground with Israelis on country-wide tour

During the first delegation of Bahrainis organized by the NGO Sharaka, young Bahraini influencers had their preconceptions of Israel challenged - and laid the foundation for more meaningful peace.

Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel.  (photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)
Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel.
(photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)

Just over a year ago the sight of Bahrainis touring Jerusalem’s Old City would’ve been unimaginable. But last week, the unimaginable happened as nine Bahraini activists toured the Jewish Quarter with the first Bahraini delegation organized by the NGO Sharaka.

The group drew curious gazes from Israelis as they took a guided tour through the Cardo and to the Western Wall. The locals were quick to sneak selfies with the Bahrainis, as if they were celebrities.

The delegates were on an eight-day trip to experience Israel for themselves, and to lay the foundation for interpersonal connections for peace between Israelis and Bahrainis.

“We don’t want the Abraham Accords to remain at the government level; we also want it at the level of the people,” said Dan Feferman, Sharaka’s director of communications and global affairs.

The group visited Yad Vashem and the Mahaneh Yehuda open market, met politicians at the Knesset, and traveled to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Merom Golan.

 Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel.  (credit: MICHAEL STARR) Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

Khawla al-Shaer, an activist for youth and women empowerment, was advised by her friends not to go to Israel, and cautioned her to be careful. Mainstream and social media had shown only conflict.

“We have knowledge and information, but only from one side,” said Shaer.

Instead of conflict, the Bahrainis were surprised to see people living normal lives.

 Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel.  (credit: MICHAEL STARR) Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

“Everyone is trying to live their lives – Jews, Muslims, everyone,” said Fatema al-Harbi who works at Bahrain’s Ministry of Education, and is a youth activist and peace advocate.

The disparity between reality and media taught Shaer the need to speak with actual people, and that one can’t understand others only through a screen.

Muhammad al-Shaer, a musician and self-described “nomad,” expressed admiration for the diversity he saw.

“Israel has a little bit of everything with its own character,” he said, also noticing it in the architecture, where “you have different influences from different Jews from different areas.”

 Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel.  (credit: MICHAEL STARR) Bahraini activists on a tour of Israel. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

However, not all diverse experiences were positive. While Harbi shared that “Israelis have been very happy and welcoming,” the group had been heckled by some Palestinian men, who grabbed their headscarves.

There was also negative feedback from back home.

“Coming for us is not an easy thing; it’s not always positive with social media, friends and family,” said Khawla al-Shaer.

“A lot of people are very happy with the peace, but it isn’t as fast as with the UAE,” Harbi said. “It might be slow going, but it’s growing.”

Sharaka, meaning “partnership” in Arabic, is an NGO that seeks to foster that growth by organizing delegations between Abraham Accords signatories.

“Sharaka is a project that connects people,’’ said Amit Deri, a founder of the project. “About a year ago we brought a historic delegation from the UAE, and today we are proud to be the first to host a delegation from Bahrain.”

According to Arsen Ostrovsky, a board member of Sharaka Israel and chairman & CEO of the International Legal Forum, the Bahrainis are “an inspiring example of what building bridges and promoting real people-to-people peace among the nations of the Abraham Accords looks like.”

Sharaka’s board has members from each of the Abraham Accords states, united by a common goal. According to the delegates, shared goals are what makes trips like theirs so impactful.

“The languages of Hebrew and Arabic are similar, which shows that we have deeper connections,” said Khawla al-Shaer. She also remarked how there are little things like similar foods and cultural items that Bahrainis and Israelis have in common. They also face common problems.

“We’re facing bigger issues than wars of ideology, like climate change. We should unify to fight these problems,” she said.

Just over a year ago, there was little to no interaction between Bahrainis and Israelis. Through trips like the Sharaka delegation, they are now finding common ground.

“Interesting how Jews are a people with such diversity; I didn’t expect that,” Muhammad al-Shaer mused as he walked through the Jewish Quarter. But there is “common ground; that brings people together.

“Peace is people finding common ground,” he said.