A groundbreaking Bahraini Jewish woman

A groundbreaking Bahraini Jewish woman

'Houda became ... the first Jewish ambassador from the Arab region ... and only the third woman to be appointed ambassador of Bahrain'.

Houda Nonoo addressing the AJC Global Forum, 2019.
Houda Nonoo addressing the AJC Global Forum, 2019.

I WRITE to inform your readers of the exploits of a remarkable individual, who achieved acclaim as a woman, an Arab and a Jew.

The exciting news out of Bahrain in recent weeks, of the normalisation of relations between Israel and Bahrain, reminds me – and other teachers as well as students at Carmel College (an international Jewish boarding school in south Oxfordshire, UK) in the 1980s – of a joke that did the rounds at that time: that when Carmel was in session, the Jewish population of that Arab island in the Gulf was reduced to half its usual size. Well, that’s not exactly true. Actually estimated at 37 souls at that time, the current community – that dates to Iraqi merchants who migrated to the area in the late 19th century (when it stood at close to 1500) – still numbers less than 50.

Carmelis of the 1980s recall a clan of three Bahrainis, the Nonoos – Houda (1979-1983), her brother Abraham (1979-1986) and cousin Yuhooda (1982-1987). All of them achieved prominence as Bahrainis. 

In 2001 another of Houda’s cousins, named Ibrahim (who did not attend Carmel), became the first ever Jewish member of the Shura Council, the 40-member parliament of this constitutional monarchy. 

Houda gained wider acclaim. Following her years with us at Carmel, she remained in the UK for more than a decade, earning an MBA from the International University of Europe in Watford, UK, before returning to the Gulf kingdom in her late 20s to join her siblings in taking over the reins of the family computer services business in the capital, Manama.

An accomplished businesswoman, Houda became politically involved over the years. She was moved to the fore when, in 2008, she was – without any diplomatic experience whatsoever – appointed ambassador to the USA, the first Jewish ambassador from the Arab region, the first female Bahraini ambassador to the US and only the third woman to be appointed ambassador of Bahrain. She remained at her post in Washington for five years.

Houda had achieved prominence from 2004 when she founded the Bahraini Human Rights Watch Society (BHRWS), which advocated for the rights of women in divorce and child custody disputes, and for the protection of foreign housemaids. She was also one of the founders of the Bahraini Association for Child Safety (BACS). In 2006, now in her 40s, Houda was appointed a member of the Shura Council by the king himself, King Hamad bin Salman Al-Khalifa, thus succeeding her cousin, Ibrahim, to what has become a permanent seat reserved for the Jewish community. 

It was her human rights activism that had received a lot of exposure and had placed her on the king’s radar, she says. “My appointment was a good way of promoting Bahrain … a way of demonstrating the uniqueness and the tolerance of my country”, she told Simon Round of the London Jewish Chronicle in December 2008.

The appointment of a Jewish Arab signalled the country’s cultivation of the West, wrote Julia Duin in the Washington Post magazine of May 2012, reflecting the view of contemporary American ambassadors. The king, who – she noted – wanted to show that his kingdom was liberal and forward-thinking, was sending a message, a move that impressed the diplomatic court circles in Manama. The king had chosen a diplomat who was ” bright, genuine and refreshingly direct”, an American counterpart reported. 

So here we have our very own RBG. And with two sons in their 20s who are racing-car drivers! How cool is that. 

Today Houda is still in the employ of the foreign ministry, engaged as a roving ambassador. In September, she travelled to Washington to witness the celebratory signing on the White House lawns of the Abraham Accords. This is a development, wrote Ross Kriel of The Times of Israel, that “can have a transformative effect for Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperation across the Middle East”. This is a prospect that Houda had long been scouting. 

While in Washington, she was a popular and much sought-after guest speaker on American campuses, where she preached the diversity of multiculturalism favoured in Bahrain, the type that protects other minority religious practice, like that of the Baha’i sect (outlawed in Iran). Within Judaism, she acted to bring together the Lubavitchers and the Modern Orthodox, something she had learned at Carmel. In 2010, she introduced her boss, foreign minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, to these groups at a dinner that, as Duin told it, was supposed to be hush-hush. And so it remained until Khaled tweeted: “Was invited by my friend rabbi shimtov 2 a dinner w/leaders of the American Jewish community. gr8 discussion abt peace in ME.”

And thus, the Abraham Accords. Last month Houda was part of the delegation that accompanied her current Foreign Minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, to Israel, on a mission to further cement that peace. Arriving in Israel on November 18, the Bahraini minister met with President Reuven Rivlin that afternoon and, a little later, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Jews and Muslims are destined to live together, the President told Al-Zayani, who returned the warmth of his reception. Bahrain is a country, he replied, that believes in the values of peace, coexistence, tolerance, respecting others and living side by side despite differences. 

By simply googling “Houda Nonoo” those who might want direct access to my sources, as well as a closer look at the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf, will be richly rewarded.

Freddy Zartz was head of Jewish history at Carmel College, and Hebrew and Israel studies teacher at Bialik College prior to his retirement 10 years ago.

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