A delegation of 17 North American Jews from the Hampton Synagogue on Long Island made history last week when they embarked on the first ever Jewish delegation to the Gulf state of Bahrain.
The delegation was led by Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding – a foundation that in the past worked to strengthen Black-Jewish ties in the United States, and is currently working to build Jewish-Muslim ties worldwide.
“I’ve enjoyed a very close and personal relationship with the king of Bahrain, His Majesty Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. I was the first rabbi ever invited to the palace,” Schneier told Tazpit Press Service during an interview in Jerusalem, where the delegation headed after its trip to the Gulf.
In recent years, Bahrain has been working to establish a reputation as a hub for tolerance and interfaith dialogue in the Middle East. “The King was the first leader among the Gulf states to denounce Iran as an extremist terrorist state, and Bahrain was the first Gulf state to legislate against Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” said Schneier, who firmly believes that the rise of Iran’s nuclear aspirations will serve as a catalyst to strengthening ties between the region’s more moderate players.
The delegation left for Bahrain on February 25th, where they met with members of the local Jewish community, which used to number nearly 1,500 Jews, but is now down to 37. They met with 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 was the first Jew and the third woman to serve as an ambassador for Bahrain.
“Visiting Bahrain was eye-opening, a Muslim country where Christians, Jews, Hindus and others share neighborhoods and worship openly,” delegation member Sari Agatston told TPS. “This was followed by a trip to Akko, Israel where Muslims and Jews live in harmony. Both are an example of what could be.”
The delegation also met with Bahrain’s minister of tourism Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani. Schneir told TPS that Al Zayani encouraged similar future Jewish delegations to visit the country. “One of the objectives of our mission is to inspire other synagogues and other Jewish organizations around the world to come to Bahrain and visit the Jewish community and say thank you to the king for being so progressive, promoting inter-religious dialogue and cooperation,” Schneir said.
While Bahrain has made serious strides towards tolerance and interfaith dialogue, strides that are virtually unprecedented in the Arab world, the matter of relations with Israel is still a thorny issue. However, Schneier firmly believes that all of that is going to change, claiming firmly that it will be Bahrain and not Saudi Arabia who will be the first to break the embargo on Israel-Gulf relations.
According to Schneier, King Hamad has denounced the BDS movement and has called for more practical methods of dealing with the conflict. “If I were a betting man,” Schneier said, “I would bet on Bahrain’s horse to be the first among the Gulf state to win the race to relations with Israel.”
When asked how long he thinks it would take for such relations to come about, Schneir quickly responded, “within two years. I have no doubt.”