Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (seated at left), who represented his father, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, signs a declaration of religious tolerance with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center (far right) and Betsy Bennett Mathieson of This Is Bahrain and other dignitaries look on. Photo by Monica Almeida/SWC.

Jews join Bahrain officials to promote religious tolerance


Even for Los Angeles, where spectaculars often are met with a stifled yawn, a recent international tribal gathering in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom was an eye-opener.

There were delegations of Buddhists in saffron robes, Sikhs in turbans, Muslims with keffiyehs and hijabs, Jews with kippahs and Christians in business suits.

Some 400 members of these diverse groups came together on Sept. 13, at the invitation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for a noble objective. The aim was to sign and support a declaration denouncing religious hatred and violence in all their forms; to support full freedom of religious choice and government protection of minorities; and to ensure that religious faith “serves as a blessing to all mankind and as the foundation of peace in the world.”

Given the past and present behavior of mankind, it doesn’t take a skeptic to view this and similar declarations as pie-in-the-sky illusions.

What was different in this instance was that the declaration was promulgated and drafted by the ruler of a country where such ideas have been in effect for centuries. That country is Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has some 1.4 million inhabitants, and a breakdown of its religious faiths indicates that 70 percent are Muslims, 14.5 percent are Christians, 10 percent are Hindus and 2.5 percent are Buddhists. The percentage of Jews is listed in different surveys as a fraction of 1 percent, but the actual number is even smaller, ranging between 36  and 40 residents.

Large parts of the Jewish population left the country following riots in 1947 and 1967, but Jewish, Muslim and British sources agree that the riots were triggered by pro-Palestinian outsiders and that resident Arabs went out of their way to protect their Jewish neighbors.

But with the ascendancy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the throne in 2002, domestic and foreign observers have seen an almost utopian state of relations among Bahrain’s religious groups. The monarch has enshrined religious tolerance in the country’s laws and by personal example. For instance, since 2015, he has celebrated Chanukah with both Jews and Muslims in attendance.

During the dinner in Beverly Hills, Sami Abdulla, a Bahrain government minister responsible for housing projects, was asked whether there were any problems in what sounded like paradise on earth. He responded that the main fear of his countrymen was that the surrounding region’s many problems and hostilities would at some point spill over into their nation.

Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the two Orthodox rabbis whose unorthodox projects and initiatives as leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center often vex more conventional Jewish organizations, visited Manama, Bahrain’s capital, by invitation in early 2017. A walk through the city, Cooper said, was enlightening. There was a church, with a huge cross, next to a Hindu temple; and 100 yards away was an impressive mosque. A small synagogue, the only one in the Persian Gulf region, still stands in an older part of the city.

Hier and Cooper met with Hamad and discussed the ruler’s plan to establish a Museum of Religious Tolerance in the capital city by the end of this year.

Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. However, Cooper noted, during the audience with the king, the latter denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit the Jewish state.

Another point of discussion at the Beverly Hills event was a universal statement on religious tolerance written by the king and celebrated as the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

The document’s key points emphasized freedom of religious choice, religious rights and responsibilities, and “faith illuminating the path to peace.”

The evening’s guests included officials from such predominantly Muslim nations as Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. Like all others present, the Arab officials stood in respect as the colorful Bahrain National Orchestra, conducted by Field Marshal Mubarak Najem, played “Hatikvah,” preceded by the Bahraini and United States national anthems, sung by Sumaya Meer and Cantor Arik Wolheim.

The main speaker was Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king, who led the Bahraini delegation, toured the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and met with Jewish students.

As the evening’s climax, a group of distinguished guests on the dais signed the Bahrain Declaration, among them the speakers; visiting Arab officials; clergymen of various faiths; the evening’s master of ceremonies, television personality Mary Hart; UCLA professor Judea Pearl; and Betsy Bennett Mathieson, president of This Is Bahrain. The government-supported  booster  organization presented each guest with a lapel pin featuring symbols of the country’s seven religions, with a Jewish menorah adjoining a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, a reporter asked Cooper whether the evening’s upbeat tone and hopeful notes were warranted in light of the Mideast’s seemingly endless conflicts.

Cooper responded that Bahrain, like Israel, “lives in a tough neighborhood. But if there is to be any hope for the future, it will have to be realized by voices of religious moderation.”

Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center with interfaith leaders during the signing of The Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance. PHOTOGRAPH BY MONICA ALMEIDA

Kingdom of Bahrain and Wiesenthal Center team up to promote religious tolerance


Even for Los Angeles, where spectaculars are often met with a stifled yawn, the international tribal gathering in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom was an eye opener.

There were delegations of Buddhists in saffron robes, Sikhs in turbans, Muslims with keffiyehs and hijabs, Jews with kippahs and Christians in business suits.

At the invitation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, some 400 members of these diverse groups came together Sept. 13 to sign and support a declaration denouncing religious hatred and violence in all forms, to support full freedom of religious choice and government protection of minorities and to ensure that religious faith “serve as a blessing to all mankind and as the foundation of peace in the world.”

Given the past and present behavior of mankind, it doesn’t take a skeptic to view this and similar declarations as pie-in-the-sky illusions. What is different in this instance is that the declaration was promulgated and drafted by the ruler of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf where such ideas have been in effect for centuries.

Bahrain has some 1.4 million residents, 70 percent of whom are Muslim. Christians make up 14 1/2 percent of the population, 10 percent is Hindu and 2 1/2 percent is Buddhist. The percentage of Jews is listed in different surveys as a fraction of 1 percent, but the actual number is even smaller, ranging between 36 to 40 actual residents.

Large numbers of Jews left the country following riots in 1947 and 1967, but Jewish, Muslim and British sources agree that the riots were triggered by pro-Palestinian outsiders and that resident Arabs went out of their way to protect their Jewish neighbors.

With the ascendancy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to the throne in 2002, domestic and foreign observers see an almost utopian state of relationships among Bahrain’s religious groups. However, human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have accused the monarchy and ruling class, who are Sunni Muslim, of discriminating against the country’s majority Shiite Muslims.

The monarch, who has an impressive collection of Frank Sinatra records, has enshrined religious tolerance both in the country’s law and by personal example. For instance, since 2015, he has celebrated Chanukah with both Jews and Muslims in attendance.

At the dinner in Beverly Hills, Sami Abdulla, a government minister responsible for housing projects, was asked whether there were any problems in what sounded like paradise on earth. He said the main fear of his countrymen was that the region’s many problems and hostilities would spill over into their nation.

Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the Orthodox rabbis whose unorthodox projects and initiatives as leaders of the Wiesenthal Center often vex more conventional Jewish organizations, visited Manama, Bahrain’s capital, by invitation, early this year.

A walk through the city, Cooper said, was an eye-opener. He said he saw a church, with a huge cross, next to a Hindu temple, and nearby an impressive mosque. Even a small synagogue, the only one in the Persian Gulf region, still stands in an older part of the city.

Hier and Cooper met with King Hamad and discussed the ruler’s plan to establish a Museum of Religious Tolerance in the capital by the end of this year.

Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Cooper noted, that during the audience with the king, the king denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit Israel.

A universal statement on religious tolerance, written by the king, was celebrated as The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration at the Beverly Hills event. Key points emphasized freedom of religious choice, religious rights and responsibilities and “faith illuminating the path to peace.”

The evert drew guests including officials from such predominantly Muslim nations as Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. Arab officials stood as the colorful Bahrain National Orchestra, conducted by Field Marshal Mubarak Najem, played “Hatikvah,” preceded by the Bahraini and U.S. national anthems, sung by Sumaya Meer and Cantor Arik Wolheim.

The keynote speaker was Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king and a formidable athlete, who led the Bahraini delegations and had toured the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

As the evening’s climax, guests formally signed the Bahrain Declaration, among them the speakers, visiting Arab officials, clergymen of various faiths, television personality Mary Hart, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies; UCLA Professor Judea Pearl, and Betsy Bennett Mathieson, president of This Is Bahrain, a government-supported booster organization.

Mathieson presented each guest with a lapel pin featuring symbols of the country’s seven religions, with a Jewish menorah adjoining a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent.

Asked whether the evening’s upbeat tone and hopeful notes were warranted in the light of the Mideast’s apparently endless conflicts, Cooper said Bahrain, like Israel, “lives in a tough neighborhood. But if there is to be any hope for the future, it will have to be realized by voices of religious moderation.”

An undated handout picture shows the Iranian supersonic ballistic missile launching during a war-game in an unknown location in Iran. Photo by Fars News/Reuters

Iran says missile can reach Tel Aviv in 7 minutes


A senior Iranian official threatened immediate retaliation against Israel if it is attacked, warning that Iranian missiles can reach Tel Aviv in seven minutes.

Mojtaba Zonour, a senior member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and a former Revolutionary Guards official, made the remarks over the weekend to Iran’s Fars news agency. Zonour also threatened to destroy the American military base in nearby Bahrain if Iran is attacked.

“The U.S. Army’s 5th Fleet has occupied a part of Bahrain, and the enemy’s farthest military base is in the Indian Ocean, but these points are all within the range of Iran’s missile systems and they will be razed to the ground if the enemy makes a mistake,” Zonour said Saturday. He added: “And only seven minutes is needed for the Iranian missile to hit Tel Aviv.”

The comments came in the wake of Iran’s testing last week of a ballistic missile, a move that prompted President Donald Trump to impose a new round of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The test also set off a flurry of tweets from Trump, included one on Feb. 2 saying that “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.” The following day, Trump tweeted that Iran is “playing with fire.”

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a new round of sanctions targeting individuals or entities it said had assisted Iran’s missile program.

Rabbi Marc Schneier: Netanyahu should take bold peacemaking trip to Saudi Arabia


New York Rabbi Marc Schneier two weeks ago met with Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in the country’s capital city of Manama. A day earlier, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-state body composed of Bahrain and its neighbors, had adopted a Bahraini-sponsored resolution declaring Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group committed to Israel’s destruction, a terrorist organization.

Schneier heads the glitzy Hampton Synagogue and runs the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which advances Jewish-Muslim relations. He has met with Hamad and other Arab leaders multiple times. Last week, he sat down with JTA to talk about the GCC resolution, relations between Israel and the Gulf, and what it’s like to meet with repressive regimes. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JTA: Why did Hamad push to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization?

Schneier: He does not see the conflict in the Middle East as a Sunni-Shia conflict. He does not see the conflict in the Middle East as Arab-Israeli and Arab-versus-Jew. He sees it as moderates versus extremists. It’s the voice of moderation versus the voice of extremism and fanaticism and terrorism, and I believe that’s how many of the Gulf states see it.

He very much looks to Israel as being that protective force in the Middle East. My concern is for the safety and security of the state of Israel, and to have Arab countries openly attack one of Israel’s most treacherous enemies is something.

You’ve now reached a point where, [for] the members of the GCC, there’s a much greater issue that transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Do you feel comfortable meeting with the king of a country that has such a poor human rights record?

It’s a matter of seeing these regimes in context. You can’t compare the Saudi Arabia of 2016 to the Saudi Arabia of 1996 …

Even Bahrain has a Jewish community. The king has offered several times to build a new synagogue. When I go to Bahrain, I feel very much at home as a Jew, as a rabbi. It’s a country, it’s a kingdom, that’s committed to religious diversity.

Do you think the Gulf states are ready for real relations with Israel? How should Israel reach out to them?

I think the prime minister [Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu] should take a page out of [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s playbook and go to Riyadh, make those kinds of overtures. The Saudis put forth a peace plan. Has Israel ever responded to it? The answer is no.

[The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative offers full relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from territories Israel captured in 1967 and an agreed-upon resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue. Israeli officials have rejected the initiative several times, but Israel has never issued an official response.]

Netanyahu and others have spoken about shared opposition to Iran drawing Israel and Sunni Arab countries together. Do you think that’s possible?

I don’t see Iran as an obstacle. I see it as an opportunity to forge new relations, open relations with the members of the GCC.

The Jewish world is so preoccupied with how Europe is going to label [settlement-made products]. And here in your own backyard [are] six of the most prestigious, prominent Arab countries. We’re very blessed that we live at a time when Israel needs the Gulf states, the Gulf states need Israel.

Gulf states looking to buy Israel’s Iron Dome system for protection against Iran


Bahrain and several other Gulf states are in negotiations to buy the Israeli-developed Iron Dome defense system for protection from “a growing arsenal of Iranian missiles.”

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed, told Sky News that the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, are interested in purchasing the Israeli weapon for the entire council.

“The Israelis have their small Iron Dome. We’ll have a much bigger one in the GCC,” Mohammed said.

The Iron Dome system has intercepted approximately 85 percent of missiles fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip since it became operational in 2011, according to the Times of Israel. It was produced through American contractors and the Israeli arms firm Rafael.

Mohammed said that interest in the Iron Dome has increased as a result of the Iran nuclear deal, which will loosen sanctions on Iran. The Bahraini foreign minister said the agreement will allow Iran to “stockpile enough missiles to overwhelm any defense system we build in the Gulf.”

“Iran has been trying to undermine and topple government in our region for years,” he said.

A deal involving several Gulf states could potentially cost hundreds of billions of dollars, Sky News reported.

Bahrain king meets with rabbi


The king of Bahrain met with a visiting rabbi in his palace.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, met in Bahrain Wednesday with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Schneier is also the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Schneier said that he welcomed a suggestion by King Hamad to host a gathering of Jewish and Muslim clerics in Bahrain in 2012.

“Bahrain is a role model in the Arab world for coexistence and tolerance of different faith communities, including a small Jewish community. I am deeply honored to be the first rabbi to be hosted by the King of Bahrain at his palace, and I am excited that he and his government are fully committed to building bridges between our two communities,” Schneier said in a statement.

“I am looking forward to working with King Hamad and his government to bring our two communities closer together,” he also said.

Meet Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, Bahrain’s Jewish U.S. ambassador


The appointment of Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo (46), the first female Ambassador from Bahrain and the first Jewish Ambassador of an Arab country in Washington, was praised by U.S. diplomats when it was revealed recently in one of the Wikileaks cables.

It’s not rare to hear in diplomatic circles in Washington about the “smart move” the Bahrainis made, sending to the U.S. a Western-educated woman who represents a tiny minority of the kingdom’s population.

One of Bahrain’s 36 Jews, Nonoo told the “Moment” magazine, a national magazine dedicated to Jewish politics, religion and culture founded in 1975 by Elie Wiesel, that she never experienced religious prejudice in her home country. “I had a normal Jewish upbringing. I was born into Judaism. It’s no different from growing up like a Jew in America. It’s my religion.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Bahraini Jewish MP: Jewish community backs king


Bahraini Jewish parliamentarian Nancy Khedouri told JTA that the protests in her country have been blown out of proportion by the media.

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in mass anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain, an oil-exporting island nation home to about 800,000 people, including some three dozen Jews.

Khedouri and others from Bahrain said the country’s Jews have refrained from joining the protests and support King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa, a Sunni ruler who has been the subject of protests by the Bahraini Shiites who comprise some 70 percent of the population.

“We are all numbed, saddened and shocked by what has happened,” Khedouri said in a telephone interview from the capital, Manama. “Yes, it’s very upsetting, but we all have faith that this is just a temporary cloud that will float away.”

Rouben D. Rouben, a Bahraini Jew, said life already is back to normal.

“I’m sitting in my shop enjoying myself,” said Rouben, the manager of an electronics and appliance store in downtown Manama. “Nobody in our community was affected. Nobody has left.”

Bahrain is the only country in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, that has ever had a real Jewish community.

Khedouri, a prominent Jew of Iraqi origin, recently was named to Bahrain’s 40-member upper parliament known as the Shura Council. She is one of two Jewish Bahrainis in the country’s government.

The other is Houda Nonoo, Bahrain’s envoy to the United States and the first Jewish ambassador ever to represent any Arab country. Nonoo did not respond to requests for comment on the situation in Bahrain.

In Bahrain, at least 3 killed, 231 hurt as army cracks down on protests


The Bahraini army seized control of key parts of capital Manama on Thursday and banned gatherings, after a riot police raid on a protest camp left at least three people dead, 231 wounded and 60 more missing.

Armed vehicles rumbled through the capital after police stormed the demonstration square in a government attempt to quell three days of protest.

“Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us,” one demonstrator told Reuters by telephone as police tried to disperse demonstrators. Another said: “I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us.”

More than 50 armored vehicles rolled down a highway toward Pearl Square, a road junction that demonstrators sought to turn into the base of a long-running protest like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square which led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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