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Bahrain Names Jewish Woman Ambassador to the U.S.

By May 30, 2008

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She's a woman, she's Jewish, she's from Bahrain, a country sometimes too tiny for its daring, and this week, Huda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo (or Nunu) became the Arab world's first Jewish ambassador. Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa on Wednesday named her his envoy to the United States by decree.

A public relations stunt by Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered? Maybe. But let's not forget that Bahrain is still a member of the conservative, if economically savvy, Gulf Cooperation Council.

More notably, let's not discredit Huda Nonoo herself and the merits of the appointment on its face: Nonoo is one of Bahrain's most fascinating women. She was the first woman lawmaker in the country's 40-member Sura Council, or upper chamber of Bahrain's Legislature, when she replaced her uncle there. She is the first woman to lead Bahrain Human Rights Watch. She's a 43-year-old businesswoman, mother of two, with homes in London and Bahrain, and only the third Bahraini woman to be appointed ambassador (a woman was the country's envoy to France and another to China). Nonoo's ancestors are originally from Iraq, reported to have moved to Bahrain in the 19th century.

Israel aside of course, Nonoo joins André Azoulay as the Middle East's (and certainly the Arab world's) highest ranking Jewish diplomat. Azoulay was a prominent Moroccan banker in Paris before returning to Morocco in the mid-1990s to be one of King Hassan II's senior advisers. When Hassan died in 1999, Azoulay stayed on as an adviser to Mohammed VI, Hassan's son.

Bahrain's Jewish community fluctuates between 40 and 400, depending on which report you read. Either way, it's a minuscule number. It has its own synagogue. The Arab world once numbered as many as 800,000 Jews from Iraq to Morocco. The number dropped by more than half between 1948 and 1967 (between the creation of Israel and the Six Day War), as Jews fled Arab nations either because migrating to Israel was an attraction in itself or, just as likely, because hostility toward Jews in Arab lands exploded after 1948. The only country where the Jewish population did not experience such a precipitous fall during that period was Lebanon. That would change after the 1970s. As the always absorbing and often heartbreaking Jews From Lebanon blog put it this week, "Today in Lebanon Jews are forced to live in secrecy and all the way in the Arab Gulf they are securing diplomatic positions." In Baghdad, too, Jews "have become a fearful few." (Have a look at the blog's beautiful photographic exhibit of the old Jewish neighborhood of Sidon, the millenarian city on the Lebanese coast.)

Meanwhile in relatively forward-looking Bahrain, the king is planning to grant full citizenship rights to Jews who wish to return there. Ironically, Bahrain is a majority-Shiite country ruled by a Sunni and largely unrepresentative monarchy whose oppression of Shiites and repeated suppressions of Shiite rebellions and protests is an unavoidable blight on this otherwise pearly kingdom of the Persian Gulf.

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