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 Moment Magazine, a national journal 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.”
She was credited with organizing the meeting between King Hamad and Bahraini Jewish immigrants in the U.S. and arranged a dinner at the home of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, with the Bahraini foreign minister and representatives of U.S. Jewish organizations.
She made a point, however, to say that her identity had nothing to do with Israel, which her country has no diplomatic relations with. “I have never visited Israel. I’m Jewish. I’m not Israeli.”, she said in an interview. “I never knew anything about the Holocaust until I was 14. I never identified with Israel”. She expressed hope, however, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved. “For the Arab world as a whole, it is on their agenda. I hope it happens.”
Nonoo referred to the buzz following her appointment in 2008 with slight annoyance: “The headlines were ‘Jewish Female', they forgot I was Bahraini.”
In 1948 there were an estimated 1,500 Jews in Bahrain, but the numbers dwindled following the 1948 riots and looting at the Jewish quarter in Manama, and by 1967 there were only about 500-600 Jews left. “Moment's" Sarah Breger mentions that the royal family tried to reach out to the Jewish community, making an effort to convince immigrants who had fled abroad to return, but the community’s synagogue that is mainly closed still brings rabbis from England for special occasions and while the Jewish cemetery is open, no local kosher food is available.
Ambassador Nonoo was educated in a Jewish school in the U.K., where she also received a BA in accounting from the City of London University and an MBA from the International University of Europe in Watford.
She married a British citizen, but returned to Bahrain following the death of her father to run one of the family businesses. Nonoo is successful business woman, she does not wear a headscarf, she is the mother of two sons (Menashe and Ezra), and also promotes Bahrain's image as a country in which women “have a choice” whether to cover themselves or to drive (and since 2002, to vote, although there is only one woman elected to the Parliament).
Yet Nonoo is still often mistaken for the Ambassador’s wife at festive events – and in a recent CNN report on the clashes in Bahrain, in which her rare statement was mentioned, they referred to the Bahraini Ambassador as “he.”