AJC welcomes Bahrain envoy – a Jewish woman

A woman ambassador to the United States representing an Arab nation? If that question’s “yes” answer is not surprising enough, how about the fact that Her Excellency Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo is Jewish? But the facts speak for themselves. Nonoo is indeed the ambassador to the United States from Bahrain, and a member of its 36-person Jewish population, having been named to her post on July 3, 2008 by the King of Bahrain, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

Nonoo was in St. Louis last week for a visit with local leaders of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Committee in cooperation with the World Affairs Council of St. Louis. The AJC has cultivated close ties with the Kingdom of Bahrain, along with the governments of other moderate Arab and Muslim regimes throughout the Middle East.

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Following her luncheon meeting with the AJC and World Affairs Council at the St. Louis Club in Clayton, Ambassador Nonoo sat down for an interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light. She was accompanied by Rose Sager, Bahrain’s trade representative to the United States. Also present during the interview were Henry Dubinsky, a member of the national AJC Board of Governors, who visited Bahrain two years ago, and Nancy Lisker, executive director of the St. Louis Chapter of AJC.

Nonoo is a native of Bahrain. She received her master’s degree in business administration from the International University of Europe in Waterford, United Kingdom, and a bachelor of arts degree in accounting from the City of London University. Previously, she had been named a member of the Shura Council, the upper chamber of Bahrain’s parliament, where she served on the Committee for Finance and Economic Affairs.

Nonoo, who is married and has two children, expressed great appreciation for and pride in Bahrain’s progressive attitude towards women and its religious tolerance of its Shia and Sunni Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations, all of which have been officially commended by the AJC.

Bahrain, which has a population of 727,000 (as of July 2009), became a separate entity in 1783, when the al-Khalifa family, which still rules the kingdom, captured Bahrain from the Persians (now Iran). The United Kingdom made Bahrain a British Protectorate in the 19th century. The kingdom gained its independence in 1971. Because of its small size and central location among larger neighbors in the Persian Gulf, it has been required to play a delicate balancing act in foreign affairs among its larger neighbors. Today, the kingdom is a leader in petroleum processing and an international banking center.

What brings you to St. Louis, and specifically, why have you met with the St. Louis American Jewish Committee? Also, are you making such visits in other U.S. cities?

I am, yes. What brings me to St. Louis specifically has been the role of Henry Dubinsky. Henry and his wife Ellen are amazing people. The whole AJC delegation was great. I had the opportunity to visit the Boeing facility in St. Louis since arriving here, and its amazing museum, which has many objects from the space program. I hope to visit the Arch this afternoon.

Is the AJC involved in your visits to other U.S. communities?

Yes. I met in New York with the AJC Chapter there. In a couple of weeks, the AJC will have its annual general meeting, and I will be the guest speaker at its event on Friday afternoon. So I am doing quite a bit with them.

I imagine that a lot of the readers of the Jewish Light might be surprised to learn that AJC, an American Jewish organization, has such a cordial relationship with Bahrain, a member of the League of Arab States and the Islamic Council.

Yes. The first time the AJC came to Bahrain was in 1995. Since then, a delegation has come if not every year, at least every other year. I was involved in meeting with three such delegations of AJC members. The first included Henry and Ellen Dubinsky of St. Louis, plus two after that. The AJC is a liberal organization, and they serve as a go-between the Arabs and the Israelis. It is amazing what they are trying to do, and not only in Bahrain. They have been in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar as well.

Except for Morocco, I do not know of any other Arab nation with a member of its Jewish community in a key political position. Have you encountered other Jews from Arab states who serve in such positions?

I did met Serge Berdugo, who has held several posts in Morocco. He is an amazing guy. I was actually sitting next to him at a table and he didn’t realize I was Jewish. He was surprised how one could be Jewish in Bahrain. He said we had not done a good public relations job in letting people know that Bahrain has a Jewish ambassador to the U.S. In fact, we have been all over the media, but it still surprises people not familiar with the story.

So, how were you able to rise to this position in a country like Bahrain?

Basically, from 2004, I was a founding member of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, so that basically threw me into the limelight. In 2006, His Majesty appointed me to the Shura Council, which is the upper house in our parliament. At the time, there were 11 females in that house. In the lower house, currently, there is one female. In 2008, I got a call from the Foreign Minister (Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa), who said, ‘I’ve got good news for you. You are being nominated as ambassador to the United States of America.’ I thought he was joking. He said, no, we are serious. So within a few days it was confirmed that I would be the ambassador to the United States. It is a great honor to be serving in the United States, a great honor given me by His Majesty the King. I feel extra special being here.

There has been a lot of pessimism, even some gloom over prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a representative of a moderate Arab government who is Jewish, and who has close ties with the AJC which promotes peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, are you hopeful that the peace process can be put back on track?

I believe our Foreign Minister, His Royal Highness Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, summarized best how I feel and the official position of my government, when he published an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post in July 2009, where he called for fresh thinking on Arab-Israeli issues. He wrote: ‘Our biggest mistake has been to assume that you can simply switch peace on like a light bulb. The reality is that peace is a process, contingent on a good idea, but also requiring a great deal of campaigning-patiently and repeatedly-targeting all relevant parties. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel.’ His conclusion was simple: ‘The two communities in the Holy Land are not fated to be enemies. What can unite them tomorrow is potentially bigger than what divides them today. We (that is the Arab side) should move toward real peace now by consulting and educating our people and by reaching out to the Israeli public to highlight the benefits of a genuine peace.’