Friday, November 14, 2008

Bahrain's Overtures Toward Jewish Citizens

I just came across an interesting article on JTA:
The king of Bahrain said he would facilitate the return of Jewish expatriates through restored citizenship and land offers.

King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa met in New York Tuesday with about 50 Bahraini Jews who had immigrated to the United States, following a similar meeting in London this summer.

The king said that all expatriate Bahrainis, whatever their religion, were welcome to return.

"It's open, it's your country," he said in New York.

Hamad had reversed a law that banned dual citizenship and was ready to restore the citizenship of Bahrainis who had lost it in the interim, as well as offer it to their children.

"The younger ones can’t remember much, but we want them to know," he said of Bahraini heritage.

Returning Bahrainis would be eligible for land allocations, the king said.

Hamad is in New York to attend an interfaith conference co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. He has instituted reforms in recent years, including extending the vote to women. He recently named a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo, as his ambassador to Washington.

In an interview, Hamad told JTA that he did not expect his reforms to replicate throughout the region.

"What we do in Bahrain is for sure for Bahrain, it’s not to be exported," he said.

Bahrain has recorded a Jewish presence since the Talmudic era. Its current community of several dozen Jews is descended from Iraqi Jewish merchants who settled in the late ninth century.

Several things about this article struck a chord for me. First, given the open hostility to Jews throughout the Arab world (not just Israelis), the idea that an Arab country would take positive steps to improve relations with its own Jewish community is a terrific sign. Many people forget that a large segment of the Israeli population is comprised of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries in the years following the formation of the State of Israel. And many people forget that the few remaining Jewish communities in Arab countries are often discriminated against or used as scapegoats for societal ills (or accused of being Israeli spies). So it is a welcome sign to see at least one Arab country actually recognizing that Jews play a role in their society and welcoming them as full partipants. Compare this to countries like Saudi Arabia where it is a crime not to be a Muslim.

But Bahrain has, apparently, gone further than just welcoming Jews. The Bahraini government has actually given a Jew (and a woman, at that) a position of power and influence within the government. That is a very positive step forward that could, given time, help form a base for some kind of construction dialogue between Bahrain and Israel. For the record, I wouldn't expect Ambasador Nonoo to be pro-Israeli; she should be pro-Bahraini and advocate for her nation. On the other hand, one would certainly hope that even if she opposes the government of Israel, she would also oppose anti-Semitism and could become a voice for tolerance in the Arab world.

Of course, the King's recognition that he did not expect the reforms to spread through the region is the "reality check" upon this small positive step forward.

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