Prominent US rabbi Marc Schneier hopes to see more and more Jewish delegations visiting Bahrain after he led the first-ever congregational mission to Bahrain last week, at the invitation of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.His delegation, a group of 18 members of the Hampton Synagogue – located in Westhampton Beach, New York – was the first Jewish congregation to visit an Arab country in the Gulf.Schneier, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, is deeply involved in cultivating Jewish-Muslim relations and has been visiting the Gulf state since 2011. He went on this particular trip with a specific objective: To visit the small Jewish community there, and for his community to see the king’s commitment to religious and interfaith dialogue.“My hope is that it will inspire other Jewish congregations around them to follow suit – I am a great believer in the importance of Muslim-Jewish engagement, which is not only for the benefit of both communities but could also help bring Israel and the Gulf nations closer together,” Schneier told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, the day after he flew to Israel from Bahrain.
One of the reasons he chose Bahrain out of the six Gulf states is because it has a historic Jewish community of 37 people with whom he has been in contact for a while.Among them is Huda Nonoo, a Bahraini Jew who currently serves as a member of the country’s parliament and has previously served as Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States. Nonoo is believed to be the first Jew ever to represent an Arab country to the US. The delegation also met with Nancy Khedouri, Jewish representative in the National Assembly of Bahrain, and prominent attorney Michael Yadgar.The community hosted the delegation in their historic synagogue, and they visited the Jewish cemetery together. “They are very supportive of this initiative,” Schneier remarked.Schneier also met with the country’s Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani to see how he would react to the idea of making Bahrain a destination for Jewish people around the world. He said the idea was met with “great enthusiasm” and willingness to invest time and resources into it.Zayani is also the chairman of the national airline Gulf Air and Schneier expressed hope that by 2021 there would be direct flights between Bahrain and New York.“It was very very positive and very productive,” Schneier said. The minister is scheduled to visit the US next month and to meet with rabbis and Jewish representatives to discuss opening this “new frontier of Jewish tourism” to Bahrain.He sees this beginning with more Jewish leadership trips to the country. The Jewish Federations, for instance, he says “are always looking for something intriguing to do before their meetings in Israel, so it would be good to put Bahrain on the map and a way of acknowledging the efforts the king has made in reaching out to Israel,” Schneier says.Khalifa, he points out, was the first Gulf leader to publicly denounce Iran as a “state of terror[ism] and extremism” and lead the Gulf Cooperation Council to formally label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, which it did in March 2016. In practical terms of making the destination accessible to observant Jews, Schneier said he “planted the seeds” with regards to hotels offering kosher food and restaurants, and to make the synagogue functional and active rather than just a historic site.On a diplomatic level, Schneier believes that “we are on the cusp of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf – I don’t think it’s a question of if, I think it’s a question of when.”