Jewish communities in the Gulf states have been emerging from the shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict and adopting a more public profile including through open celebration of their holidays’ thanks to the Abraham Accords
Hamas launched the worst attack on Israel in decades in October 2023, overwhelming the Israeli advanced Iron Dome missile defense system. Hundreds of Hamas fighters broke through walls with bulldozers to launch the surprise attack in a stunning failure of highly-rated Israeli intelligence. The coordinated land, air, and sea strikes evaded Israel’s electronic intercepts, sensors, and human informants in Gaza, a Palestinian coastal strip under Israeli blockade since 2007.
Israel has since responded with the full siege of a civilian population and indiscriminately targeted civilians including children and evacuees. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has flagged ‘daily indications of violations of the laws of war and international human rights law’ in Gaza amid continued military operations and the ongoing siege.
Israel’s disproportionate response amounting to war crimes threatens a ripple effect and particularly casts a shadow on the Abraham Accords signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain in 2020 for normalization of ties. An imam at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca spoke about Prophet Muhammed’s kindness to a Jewish neighbour in the Friday sermon days before the pacts were signed as part of the groundwork for other Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
The pacts followed a thaw in Arab-Israel relations. The friendlier ties were a culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work. Arab leaders had been hinting at it. In 2018, de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman backed the Israelis’ ‘right to have their own land.’ Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa a year later called Israel a part of the region’s heritage. Bahrain backed Israeli airstrikes in Syria the same year. Israel, it said, ‘has the right to defend itself.’
Israel and Saudi Arabia have developed strong informal connections. The US has been working on an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a pact with the Saudis a major goal. But brokering such a deal under the Abraham Accords is now increasingly difficult as Israel’s ultranationalist government is likely to seize on the Hamas attack and further expand Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians hoped to get for a state.
Israel’s vengeance and disregard for the laws of war has fuelled anger also at a time when Jewish communities in the Gulf states were emerging from the shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were particularly adopting a more public profile after the Abraham Accords with the availability of Kosher food and open celebration of their holidays.
A synagogue was renovated in the heart of Manama after the Abraham Accords. Nancy Khedouri, a Jew, earlier became a member of Bahrain’s parliament in 2018. Houda Nonoo, a Jewish woman named as Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington in 2008, is among the founders of an association of Jews working for greater acceptance of Jewish life in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Israeli tourists and businesspeople have been travelling to the region thanks to the Abraham Accords, leading to an industry of Jewish celebrations amid a shift across the Gulf where Bahrain has a rooted Jewish community. Jews arrived in Bahrain in the late 19th century for trade from Iraq. The UAE has the largest Jewish community in the region, where Jews thrived for centuries until the settler-colonial Zionist movement managed to create a state in Palestine and made their lives difficult in the Arab world.
The British colonialists regulated the migration to increase the Jewish population in Palestine from 9% in 1922 to 27% in 1935. They carried out demolitions under the garb of ‘urban regeneration’ following the 1917 Balfour Declaration for Israel’s creation. An estimated 750,000 Palestinians would eventually be forced out of their homes to make Israel a reality in 1948 post-Nakba (catastrophe) or ethnic cleansing.
Israel passed the Law of Return two years later entitling all non-Israeli Jews and converts to Judaism to settle and receive Israeli citizenship. Peaceful means were not necessarily used to have Jews emigrate. The bombings targeting Jews in Baghdad in 1950 and 1951 have been linked to the clandestine Zionist activities to persuade Iraq’s Jews to settle in Israel.
Former Oxford professor Avi Shlaim’s book Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab-Jew (Simon & Schuster, 2023) uncovers what he calls ‘undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in the terrorist attacks.’ The bombings forced around 110,000 of an estimated 135,000 Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Shlaim argues the Zionist project dealt a mortal blow to the position of Jews in Arab lands. The bombings were the last straw after Israel’s creation turned them into a suspected fifth column from accepted compatriots. The Zionist underground is suspected to have deliberately inflamed anti-Semitism in Iraq.
Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians over the subsequent decades further damaged centuries-old cordial Jewish-Muslim ties dating back to Islam’s rise. Jews thrived under the Abbasid Empire at the peak of Islam’s Golden Age. A Jew was among those who chose the auspicious day for work to begin for Baghdad’s foundation as the Empire’s capital in 762. Jewish religious scholarship flourished in Abbasid Baghdad with 10 rabbinical schools and 22 synagogues. Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Baghdad in the 12th century, called the Caliph ‘kind unto Israel.’
Muslims believe Islam is an extension of Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity. The world’s three major religions trace their origins to Abraham. Early Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, the city Muslims, Christians, and Jews considered holy. The Muslim respect for Judaism and Christianity is rooted in the Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book) ahl al-dhikr (the people of the remembrance).
The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ When the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century, the Medina Charter, which many consider its constitution, underlined ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever.’
Muslims—from Albanians to Arabs —protected Jews from Nazis. Jews earlier found refuge in Muslim lands when papal ascendancy in medieval Europe led to religious repression, or inquisitions, from the 13th to the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire welcomed Spanish Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisition.
Tanzimat (re-ordering) administrative, military, educational, legal, and social reforms in the 19th century required provincial administrative councils to reflect local religious diversity. Four Jews would consequently represent Baghdad in the first Ottoman parliament (1877–78).
Celebrated for their ancient heritage and rich culture, Arab Jews remained well-integrated into a tolerant and multicultural Muslim-majority Iraq. Iraq’s Jews were privileged, prosperous, and distinguished sections of society tracing their presence in Babylon over 2,500 years when the 1950-51 bombings uprooted them.
Iraqi Jews were active in businesses, government, academics, music, and literature. They ran religious, educational, and social welfare institutions. Prominent Jewish families from Baghdad such as the Sassoons established businesses in Britain, India, and the Far East while maintaining ties with their community back home. Shlaim’s family was among them.
The Shlaims had a large house with servants and nannies. They sent their kids to the best schools and rubbed shoulders with the Crème de la crème sashaying from one glittering party to the next. Shlaim’s father, a successful businessman, counted ministers as friends. His mother, a socially ambitious woman, lived a gilded life as a society hostess in Baghdad’s rich, cosmopolitan, and harmonious milieu. She had Muslim friends but no Zionist ones.
Ashkenazim, the European Jews, have looked down upon Arab Jews or the Sephardim in Israel, where Iraqi Jews were sprayed with DDT, an insecticide, upon their arrival. Shlaim has blamed the Eurocentric Zionist movement and Israel for intensifying divisions between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, Hebrew and Arabic, and Judaism and Islam. Shlaim accuses them of actively working to erase an ancient heritage of pluralism, religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and coexistence represented by the city of his birth (Baghdad).
Shlaim blames Zionism for discouraging them from seeing each other as fellow human beings. He calls Israel an apartheid and fortress state with a siege mentality attributing genocidal intentions to its neighbours. Shlaim concludes the so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a busted flush after years of the relentless and illegal expansion of Israeli settlements.
Israel’s collective punishment meted out to Palestinians is also a major setback for the backers of the one-state solution regardless of ethnicity or religion, who argued Israeli apartheid in the 21st century was unsustainable. Once dismissed as an extreme fringe pursuit, many Palestinians and a few Israelis were considering the resolution with increasing seriousness. But all bets appear to be off at least for now.