There was a celebration of Bahraini religious tolerance, co-sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, last week in Los Angeles. What would Bahraini Shias think about that?
Israel lately is apparently making even more inroads among the dictatorial Arab regimes of the Middle East.
Earlier this year, two rabbinic leaders from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Los Angeles, visited Bahrain and held an audience with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. According to the rabbis, the Arab monarch denounced the longstanding Arab boycott of Israel and said that his citizens were welcome to visit Israel.
I have contacted the Bahraini embassy in Washington DC and the foreign ministry in Bahrain to ask whether the rabbis’ claims represent official state policy. No one has replied thus far
He also confirmed his plans to open his own museum of religious tolerance this year. If true, these statements would mark a radical departure for an Arab state.
Rabbis Cooper and Hier announced these developments last week at a celebration of Bahraini “religious tolerance” at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. At the event, 400 representatives of numerous religious faiths joined Bahrain’s crown prince in promoting the religious diversity of the country.
The Bahraini National Orchestra under the direction of no less than a “field marshal” played HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, which calls for the mass return of Diaspora Jewry to the Jewish homeland. It was a veritable PR extravaganza.
The Israeli foreign ministry was so excited by this news that it broke protocol and trumpeted the story on its Arabic language Twitter feed:
The tweet was later deleted when someone probably pointed out that this was liable to get the king into hot water, especially since he himself had not confirmed the rabbis’ claims publicly.
I have contacted the Bahraini embassy in Washington DC and the foreign ministry in Bahrain to ask whether the rabbis’ claims represent official state policy. No one has replied thus far.
Tolerance and Sinatra
The talking points emphasised during the ceremony, and duly highlighted by the far-right Jerusalem Post, noted: “Some 400 members of these diverse groups witnessed the declaration to support full freedom of religious choice, 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’.”
Bahrain, the article continues, behaved quite nastily to the Jews who resided there just before Israel’s founding in 1948. But do not fear, the unpleasantness was not the fault of Bahrainis, but of outside “pro-Palestinian” agitators.
It’s ironic that the king trumpets his tolerance of his nation’s minorities without mentioning the miserable state of its majority Shia inhabitants
Just in case the reader may have any doubts about this, the article continues with an affirmation of the benevolence of King Hamad, after whose ascendance to the throne in 2002, “domestic and foreign observers see an almost utopian state of relationships among Bahrain’s religious groups”. The same king, we are also told, has an impressive collection of Frank Sinatra records.
We’re not told who these anonymous “domestic and foreign observers” are. For sure, the rabbis are among the approving foreign observers. As for the domestic observers, I strongly doubt any Shia citizens of the nation are among them since Bahrain, which is majority Shia, violently suppresses them in favour of the Sunni ruling class, which controls the military, commerce and most levers of power.
It’s ironic, as well, that the king trumpets his tolerance of his nation’s minorities without mentioning the miserable state of its majority Shia inhabitants.
Apparently, an additional irony lost on the Wiesenthal rabbis was that Israel too proudly tells the world about its religious tolerance, all the while offering superior rights and privileges to the Jewish majority and restricting freedom of worship for the Muslim minority. Israel, too, has violently suppressed Palestinians under illegal occupation, while also discriminating against Israeli Palestinians living within the boundaries of the state.
Israelis will have to do
As if we don’t have enough ironies, Israel, which sees itself as a democracy (often falsely trumpeted by its advocates as the “only democracy in the Middle East“) finds its best friends are the worst violators of human rights and the most authoritarian rulers. Pro-Israel advocates proudly note that developments like these (including a purported sighting of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in Israel last week) mark a radical and welcome shift in Israel’s acceptance within the Arab world.
As Rabbi Hier noted: “If I had to predict, I would tell you that the Arab world’s relationship with the state of Israel is going to dramatically change,” he said. The king is “ahead of the pack and smart”.
What he neglects is that Israel’s bromance is with only half of the Muslim world: the Sunnis. It is a sworn enemy of the other half: the Shia. Pro-Israel advocates seem to forget that fact, pretending the only Muslims in the world are Sunni.
Further, they also fail to appreciate that this is not a fundamental shift in Muslim attitudes, but rather a tactical one. The Sunnis have not all of a sudden become Zionists and disciples of Theodor Herzl. They don’t relish the prospect of Jews controlling their Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
But they understand that they have few allies in the region against their sworn Shia enemy, Iran. And the Israelis have precisely the military power and intelligence capability to bring to bear against the Shia state that the Sunni nations lack. So the Israelis will have to do.
And the final irony, the coup de grâce of ironies, if you will, is that the museum of tolerance branding concept which the Wiesenthal Center promotes is a fraud. In order to build their Jerusalem museum, they appropriated a piece of property in Jerusalem that sat on a historical Muslim cemetery holding graves going back hundreds of years.
Instead of respecting the dead and treating them decently, the construction project tore up the ground with excavators, tossed the bones aside, and trashed them. This is the Wiesenthal concept of religious tolerance. Tolerance for everyone except Palestinian Muslims.
If you’re a Muslim whom they can exploit like the Bahrainis, you’ll get plenty of respect. But if you’re a Muslim who stands in the way of the brand, you’re hefker, (“lost”) as they say in Jewish law.
Finally, the issue of promoting a faux vision of religious tolerance is a perfect example of faithwashing: the exploitation of religion to promote a national brand, and as a cover for the suppression of religious minorities (or in Bahrain’s case, a religious majority).
– Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center sign ‘The Bahrain Declaration of Religious Tolerance’, a ‘plain-speaking attack against terrorism’ at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles last week (Twitter/@RSS_Bahrain)