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Letter from Bahrain: A Jew at the Arab table

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Shai Franklin poses in front of fort in Bahrain, December 2010. (Shai Franklin)

Shai Franklin poses in front of fort in Bahrain, December 2010. (Shai Franklin)

MANAMA, Bahrain (JTA) — It’s not often an observant Jew like me, living in New York, gets to spend Chanukah with a bunch of Arab diplomats in the Persian Gulf.  But I found myself warmly welcomed when I showed up for the recent Manama Dialogue, a conference sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Mindful of Shabbat, my hosts had arranged for me to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the main conference site. At the front desk, clerks appended a note to my room’s electronic key card: “Please assist him to open the door [tradition].”

After watching the sun set on the Friday I was in Bahrain, knowing that Israel was hundreds of miles to the west across the Arabian deserts, I prayed, recited Kiddush and ate my LaBriute instant-warming kosher dinner. Then I emptied my pockets — no eruvs in Bahrain, at least for now — and headed outside past heavily armed Bahrain security forces and into the conference to hear U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton address the opening dinner. When I met Sheikh Khalid, the foreign minister, he greeted me with a cheerful “Happy Chanukah!”

I had come to Bahrain as a representative of the American Council for World Jewry to hear Arab policymakers talk about what’s on their minds, and I learned a few things while getting to watch some interesting interactions.

On Friday night, both Iran’s foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state shared a ballroom, though their eyes did not meet. With the VIP table positioned perpendicular to the dais, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was able to avoid looking at Clinton during or after her speech, though she repeatedly tried to catch his glance. Mottaki sat through her remarks and the question-and-answer without ever turning his head or displaying any expression. His aides, however, took diligent notes.

When Mottaki spoke the next morning, I asked one of the technicians to “show me” how the electronic translation device works, so I could listen to a translation of his remarks without overtly violating the Sabbath by handling the device myself.

It wasn’t as if I was the only Jew in the kingdom; Bahrain has been home to a small but active Jewish community for more than a century. The kingdom has a newly appointed member of parliament who is Jewish; its U.S. ambassador is Jewish, too. Both are women. On my next visit to Bahrain, I hope to visit the synagogue.

Its geographic proximity to Iran makes Bahrain, like many Persian Gulf states, nervous about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Jordan’s King Abdullah avoided all reference to — and reportedly all contact with — the Iranian delegates.

For their part, some of the Iranian delegates privately expressed satisfaction with an American empire that is overextended and compromised as a result of its overseas adventures.

“Thank you for invading Iraq,” one said.

Most of the Arabs on hand treated the notion that Iran’s nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes as an obvious joke.

The conversations at the conference weren’t only about Iran. In off-the-record sessions on Iraq and Yemen, generals and ministers spoke candidly. In his public keynote address, King Abdullah told his fellow Arabs that they must do more to show Israelis what peace would look like before time runs out.

In the Abu Dhabi airport on my way back home, I picked up The National, a newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates that carried an Associated Press report on the international effort to extinguish the Carmel forest fire in Israel. Innocuous talk of Israel is not so remarkable here, where pragmatism and economics often trump
ideology and religion.

The same goes for us. If Iran’s foreign minister can sit in on a speech by Clinton, we as Jews can afford to be in the same room and maybe hold the door open for them. Even on Shabbat, and maybe especially on Chanukah.

(Shai Franklin, policy director of the American Council for World Jewry, attended the Manama Dialogue as a guest of the Bahrain Foreign Ministry.)

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