Dining with Bahrainis at a Jerusalem Mall

This first day of Hanukkah was different from all other first days.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

It was a surreal experience on the first night of Hanukkah. I was invited to a dinner with interfaith visitors from the kingdom of Bahrain. The delegation from this Gulf state was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). Like many other Arab countries, Bahrain has no diplomatic relations with Israel and until recently it had boycotted Israel 

On the way to the restaurant at the Jerusalem Mamilla Mall the Bahraini delegation passed the mall’s Chabad’s candle lighting festival. So many people attend these festivities that the visitors were almost prevented from passing through. I was told that several delegates danced together with the Chabad representatives and bystanders. 

The Bahraini delegation included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. A Syrian Orthodox priest told me that the originators of his church were Jews. The gathering started with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles lighting the first candle of Hanukkah. He then passed the shamash, the lighting candle, to several Bahrainis who each touched the burning candle with it to participate in the lighting.

According to a secret US cable published by Wikileaks, the King had mentioned to an American official that Bahrain had contacts with Israeli intelligence. 
This unofficial delegation visited religious and other sites in Israel. It was only able to come because the authorities of the Arab Kingdom did not oppose the visit. The King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, had invited Rabbi Marvin Hier who heads the SWC and Rabbi Cooper in February this year to visit him at the island’s capital, Manama. That meeting was not kept secret and even reported on local TV. 

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, son of the Bahraini king came with a large delegation to the headquarters of the SWC in Los Angeles in September 2017. They also visited the SWC’s Museum of Tolerance and participated in a dinner attended by hundreds of interfaith leaders. When the Israeli national hymn Hatikvah was played, the prince and the delegation stood.

During that visit a declaration by the Bahraini king about religious freedom was released. It said: "Every individual has the freedom to practice their religion, providing they do no harm to others, respect the laws of the land, and accept responsibility, spiritually and materially, for their choices." 

Rabbi Hier said that the King of Bahrain now opposes the Arab states' boycott of Israel. The king also intends to allow citizens from his kingdom to visit Israel freely. There are still some Jews living in Manama, where there is a synagogue. According to a secret US cable published by Wikileaks, the King had mentioned to an American official that Bahrain had contacts with Israeli intelligence. 

Al Jazeera published information about Palestinian and Bahraini opposition to the visit to Israel. It also mentioned that the Bahraini delegation had been refused entry into Gaza. 

During the dinner I sat next to a Buddhist monk from Thailand who lives in Bahrain. He had been a monk for 17 years. He is the head of the local community of Thai Buddhists -- which has some members from Sri Lanka -- and has 2.000 followers. He didn't partake in the dinner because he never eats after lunchtime.

A Hindu gentleman opposite me also didn't eat. He told me that he fasts for more than 24 hours, every 15 days. He is the sales and marketing manager of a Bahraini trading company. He explained that he starts every day with 2 hours of prayer. In Israel he visited a temple close to Ariel where there is a small Hindu community.

Next to him sat the priest of his temple in Bahrain. He said that he doesn’t fast and called the fasting man a “devotee.” In Israeli terminology this probably translates as ‘ultra-orthodox.” The priest also mentioned that out of the 350,000 Indians of various religions living in Bahrain, about 100,000 are Hindus. There are about 7 or 8 Hindu temples in the country. On a festive day his temple could be visited during the day by up to 15,000 people. The man sitting next to him, a business man, was the chairman of the temple. 

On my other side sat an American-born universalist living in a village in Mid Java, Indonesia. He said that he considers himself a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. He added that it was difficult to also be a Jew. We agreed that unless one was born into this faith, a lot of education was required to become a Jew. 

Next to him sat the leader of the Bahraini delegation, Betsy Mathieson. She heads an organization, "Sharing the Humble Bahraini Way of Life." 

It wasn't exactly like in the time of the Maccabees, but I considered this dinner a small miracle taking place on the first day of Hanukkah.

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