As the saying goes, we don’t expect Israel’s enemies to be playing “Hatikvah.” Yet there was the Bahrain National Orchestra, playing the Israeli national anthem. The occasion was an interfaith gathering last week at the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, son of Bahrain’s king, spoke to 400 guests, including delegations from Kuwait, Egypt, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. The event culminated in a declaration from King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa calling for religious freedom.
Then the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper dropped what they must have thought was a bombshell, which was picked up by the Israeli press but not corroborated by Bahrain: The rabbis said that when they visited Bahrain this year, King Hamad denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects are free to visit the Jewish state.
The story does not sound far-fetched, as it fits into the narrative of Sunni states growing closer to Israel in the face of an aggressive Iran. This is consistent with reports that Saudi Arabian and Israeli officials met secretly in Tel Aviv, and with leaked emails this summer that revealed that the United Arab Emirates established secret links with Israel. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel is enjoying the “greatest relations ever” with the Arab world.
Of course, none of these countries has yet established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, which is why internal pressure in the Arab League to drop its nearly 70-year boycott of Israel, as reflected in the Hier and Cooper story, is welcome, particularly as the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is pushing in the other direction.
But there’s another saying in Middle East peacemaking: If you say it in English, say it in Arabic, too. We hope that if the king of Bahrain is truly interested in closer ties with Israel, he’ll announce it generally to his people — in Arabic. And we hope his declaration of tolerance will be more than just words, and be a step in improving Bahrain’s poor human rights record.
The kingdom seemed to be progressing on the human rights front when Houda Nonoo was appointed the Bahraini ambassador to the United States. Nonoo, who served from 2008 to 2013, was the first woman to hold that post as well as the first Jewish ambassador of any Arab state in the Middle East. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear last month that the Sunni-led state’s relationship with its Shiite majority was still a problem: “Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education and the justice system,” he said.
We like the sound of “Hatikvah” coming from the Bahrain National Orchestra. To the extent it represents a further embrace of the Jewish state, and a genuine commitment to human rights and religious tolerance, we wholeheartedly welcome it.