A man pulled up a plastic chair only feet away from the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday and sat himself down in the midday sun. Like the hundreds of Jews around him, he closed his eyes and began praying.
But unlike the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men on either side of him, dressed in black suits and white shirts, the man was decked out in an immaculate white robe down to his sandals and a red-and-white keffiyeh around his head and shoulders.
Mohammed Saleh, an official with Bahrain’s Education Ministry, stood, bowed, and sat again as he went through his Muslim liturgy. Some of the men around him ignored the uncommon sight entirely, focusing on their own prayer. Others, mostly younger Haredim, looked on with a mix of curiosity and bewilderment, and those who possessed smartphones pulled them out to take pictures.
A Yemenite bar mitzvah procession flowed around Saleh as a young boy carried a Torah scroll to the ark in front of where he was praying. An Orthodox soldier still in basic training hovered nearby nervously, asking tentatively who Saleh was in an attempt to figure out if there was anything a soldier was expected to do in this situation.
Saleh wasn’t the only Bahraini Muslim at the Western Wall that day. Eight other Bahraini businessmen, activists, and officials posed for pictures and placed notes between the stones of the wall on both the women’s and men’s sides of the holy site plaza.
They were part of the first Bahraini delegation to fly to Israel on the new direct Gulf Air route from Manama to Tel Aviv.
The visit was organized by Sharaka, or “partnership” in Arabic, an NGO founded by Israeli, Bahraini, and Emirati social entrepreneurs in the wake of the 2020 Abraham Accords.
The twelve-day trip, which began on Sunday, included a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, meetings with Israeli entrepreneurs and students, discussions with government officials, and tours of Israel’s religious and historical sites.
As much as the Bahraini participants were learning about Judaism and Israel on their walk through Jerusalem’s Old City, it seemed that the Israelis around them were going through their own profound experiences.
“Can we take pictures?” Jews, both young and old, asked tentatively, before throwing their arms around the Bahraini visitors they consistently assumed were from Dubai. Israelis also tried welcoming the guests in Arabic with wildly varying levels of success.
As Saleh wandered over to observe a bar mitzvah boy reading from the Torah as his mother and sisters looked on from the other side of the partition dividing the men’s and women’s sections, the family waved him over to join the procession dancing in a circle around the boy. Before Saleh left, he showered the young man with candies after noticing the family members doing so and posed for a photo with the smiling teen.
A group of ultra-Orthodox schoolgirls looked on apprehensively as the Bahraini group made its way back through the Kotel plaza, asking each other whether the impeccably dressed men and women were Arabs and whether their teachers would be upset if they took pictures with strangers.
The Bahrainis experienced the welcoming, inquisitive, and charmingly intrusive Israel that pleasantly surprises so many first-time visitors
Wherever they walked in the Old City, the Bahrainis were the center of attention. They experienced the welcoming, inquisitive, and charmingly intrusive Israel that pleasantly surprises so many first-time visitors.
A Birthright group encountered them next to the Hurva synagogue, which visibly excited the young Jewish Americans also visiting Israel for the first time.
“It’s amazing here; there’s so many different types of people and different types of culture just kind of meeting in one place,” remarked Rebecca Nadler from Florida.
But not all Jerusalemites were happy to see cosmopolitan Gulf Arabs from Israel’s newest regional partners taking in the city’s sights alongside Jewish hosts.
In many places the group visited — including Mahane Yehuda market, the Armon Hanatziv promenade, and the Old City — there were young Palestinian men who called them traitors, blasted nationalistic music, or even cursed their families.
The Palestinians largely view last year’s decision by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations with Israel as a betrayal of the long-held principle that Arab states should wait for the establishment of a Palestinian state before establishing ties with Israel.
But the Bahrainis were unfazed by the epithets, choosing to ignore them as much as possible. They said the verbal attacks were entirely expected, and rather tame compared to some of what they’ve experienced on social media and from Palestinians living in Bahrain.
“A lot of people have trauma here, maybe,” offered Khawla Al Shaer, who works at a pharmaceutical company in Bahrain.”And that blocks them from seeing what is best for them.”
“Deep inside I don’t think they have bad intentions,” she said.
A peace startup
Sharaka, which sees itself as a “peace startup”, was founded with the aim of translating the Abraham Accords into a warm peace between people, something sorely lacking in Israel’s decades-old relations with Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab nations to make peace with Israel.
“We are convinced that many, many people in the region, especially the younger generation, are pragmatic, open-minded and want a positive future and present,” said Dan Feferman, Director of Communications and Global Affairs at Sharaka.
The NGO also brought over a delegation last December made up of Bahrainis and Emiratis.
“We want these brave pioneers who are being criticized by some at home to get to know Israel and Israelis with their own eyes,” said Feferman, “and to introduce them to specific organizations and people, especially from the private sector and civic society, in order to create relationships and collaborations.”
“They are also doing an important job positively representing Gulf Arabs here in Israel — a population that Israelis never really got to know until recently,” he explained.
Israel and Bahrain signed a normalization agreement in September 2020 on the White House lawn, part of a thaw in regional relations that also saw the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan agree to establish ties with Israel. Last week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid inaugurated Israel’s embassy in Manama on the same day the first direct flight took off for Ben Gurion Airport.
Before she came to Israel, said Shaer, her friends feared for her safety. “They were tense because of the things they see in the media,” she explained.
An energetic, tattooed Bahraini who boxes in her spare time, Shaer said she was struck by the warmth of the welcome she received.
“We saw a lot of care and love and hospitality,” she said.
“There are very beautiful, lovely, friendly people,” said Nayla al Meer, a PhD student and official in the Youth and Sports Ministry. “This is the trip of my life.”
Meer said that her family fully supported her making the trip.
Fatema Al Harbi, who works for the Education Ministry and serves as Sharaka’s vice chairman in Bahrain, is also an accomplished athlete and entrepreneur. Growing up, she had learned only “all the bad stuff” about Israel but wanted to discover what the country was really like by herself.
“I didn’t want to hear about it,” she said. “I didn’t want to see it through media. I wanted to experience it by myself, and see it by my eyes to know the truth, to know the reality.”
“I see them living peacefully,” she continued. “I saw a lot of Arab Israelis and Arabs; they love living here.”
Asma Alatwi, a 28-year-old who studied Hebrew in Cairo, and founded the Shemot Academy, the first institute for the study of Hebrew in Bahrain, said she came to learn more about Israeli life and culture — both Arab and Jewish — and to meet friends she has made over social media since the Abraham Accords were signed.
“If I get a chance I would like to discuss and expand the cooperation between Shemot Academy centers with ulpans here in Israel,” she said, referring to schools that teach Hebrew to new immigrants and other newcomers.
A door opens
The group was especially moved by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
Bahrainis don’t learn about it at school, explained Shaer. “We did learn about the Hiroshima bombing, for example, we did learn about World War One and World War Two and so on, but the Holocaust subject is a matter we should study and learn more about.”
“Being in that museum, and seeing all those pictures and all those documents, was amazing in a horrific way,” said Shaer. “I didn’t know how much effect it has on the Jewish people.”
She said that the museum “opened a door in her mind” that she intends to explore further.
She had been taught about the Holocaust briefly in school, Harbi said, “but not about the people that died, that they were Jews, that it was intentional.”
She believes that Bahrain will teach about the Holocaust properly in schools in the coming years.
“I hear many stories about the Holocaust, but really I didn’t know the truth until I visited the Holocaust museum,” said Meer. “I will never, never forget what I saw.”
One of the key lessons members of the group said they took from the Holocaust museum — and to a large extent from the raw bitterness of Palestinians they encountered — is the productive approach Israelis have adopted toward past traumas.
“Living in the past will never make us thrive,” said Shaer. “Holding to the grudges of our ancestors will actually destroy us.”
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