In a merger of his “synagogue world” with his work fostering Jewish-Muslim relations, Rabbi Marc Schneier led 17 congregants on a three-day trip to Bahrain this week — believed to be the first such Jewish congregational mission to any Arab Gulf state.
“They are excited about the opportunity to welcome Jews,” Rabbi Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue on Long Island, said of the people they met in Bahrain. “I want to open a new frontier for the Jewish people.”
Bahrain, a group of islands in the Persian Gulf with a Shiite majority population of 1.4 million and the only Gulf nation with a Jewish population, is reportedly on the brink of establishing formal relations with Israel. In 2005, the country’s king reportedly boasted to an American official that his state had contacts with Israel “at the intelligence/security level.” Last May, officials from the Israeli Football Association attended a FIFA congress in Bahrain. In recent years, a small number of Israeli businessmen and tourists have visited Bahrain. Last December an interfaith group from Bahrain visited Israel, raising the ire of Palestinians who refused them entry to the Gaza Strip.
Rabbi Schneier, in a phone call from Bahrain Monday, told The Jewish Week that his group toured the country’s only synagogue and met with members of the Jewish community, which at one time numbered about 1,500 but is now down to 37. Among those greeting them from the Jewish community were a former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States, Huda Nonoo, a current member of the country’s parliament, Nancy Khedouri, and community leader Michael Yadgar.
The rabbi said his work as a founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which seeks to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations, first brought him to Bahrain and a meeting with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the royal family in December 2011.
“I was the first rabbi in the palace,” he said. “The king was the first leader of the six Gulf states to openly criticize Iran for its extremist and fundamentalist ways in terms of exporting terrorism. … And he successfully led the effort to get all six Gulf states to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization. If I were a betting man, I would say Bahrain will be the first of the Gulf states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The king said to me two years ago that his greatest hope for a strong moderate Arab voice in the Gulf is a strong Israel.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, visited the king a year ago and was later quoted as saying: “The king made a clear statement: ‘It’s illogical for the Arab world to boycott Israel; we must find a better way.’”
Rabbi Schneier said an “objective of our mission is to inspire other synagogues and 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 and support for Israel.”
The group, the rabbi said, met with the minister of tourism for the Gulf and “he invited other American Jews to come. I think as Bahrain begins to grow as a great financial center in the Gulf, you will see more Jews using it as a professional and business hub.”