Before Michael Feldstein visited three of the seven Arab states that border the Persian Gulf, he had a preconception that the countries he was going to on an American Jewish Committee mission were anti-Semitic.
Feldstein, a Princeton resident, is president of the AJC’s Central NJ Region. Together with his wife, Lori, and 13 other AJC members from other parts of the United States, he visited the Gulf States Dec. 2-9.
Notions of hostility toward Jews began to disappear almost as soon as the 15-member AJC delegation arrived in Bahrain on Dec. 2, he said.
They were welcomed there by Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s minister of foreign affairs, in what Michael Feldstein called “his beautifully ornate office.”
The first thing the shaikh did, said Feldstein, was give Jason Isaacson, AJC’s director of government and international affairs, “a big hug and a kiss. He said, ‘Welcome, my friend. It is so nice to see you.’”
It is an affection that Isaacson has developed in many parts of the Arab world.
“For the last 20 years AJC has reached out to the Arab world and tried to make contacts and to understand what their issues and concerns are and what is motivating their actions regarding relations with the United States and relations or non-relations with Israel, and the treatment of Jews and other minorities in those states, “ Isaacson told NJ Jewish News in a Dec 23 phone interview. “We try to seek out like-minded individuals in countries that might not have governments in line with U.S. policy in the region. We want to establish a network of individuals who have common values and perceive common threats.”
Because most of those visits are off-the-record, Issacson declined to name the other two countries his delegation visited. “But I can say we had very important meetings in Bahrain, including one with the foreign minister, Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa,” he told NJJN.
Before their session ended, the shaikh had a photograph taken of himself with the delegation. “The next day when we woke up, it was in the Bahrain newspaper and it said, ‘American Jewish Committee,’” said Feldstein. “He was very proud to be meeting with us, and it is a great relationship that we have.”
“We thanked Al-Khalifa for expressing sorrow over the two Palestinians who murdered five Jewish men in a Jerusalem synagogue in November,” Feldstein told NJJN. “He said, ‘It is deplorable. People in a house of worship should never be attacked. It is completely inhumane, and we don’t believe in that.’”
Al-Khalifa “was a very good friend to us,” said Feldstein.
At meetings with Bahrainian business and government leaders, Feldstein said, “we were told the Gulf States are very conscious of the fact that their oil is not going to last forever.”
The first day’s itinerary ended with dinner at the home of Houda Nonoo, the former ambassador from Bahrain to the United States (2008-13), who happens to be a Jewish woman (and the first Jewish ambassador of any Middle Eastern Arab country). There they were joined by some of the 36 members of Bahrain’s Jewish community. “The Jews are very much welcomed in Bahrain,” Feldstein said.
He said the Gulf State leaders’ number one concern is “extremism, the fundamentalist Islamics, and the threat they pose to the region. The people in the three countries we saw have a good thing going on. They have a very high standard of living.”
He said his perception is that “once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, or appears on the way to being resolved, doors are likely to be opening up in these states.”
Isaacson agreed. “I am confident that in the future, once the political situation permits, there will be significant interaction to the benefit of both the Gulf States and Israel,” he said. “They shared common concerns and common threats,” he said.
After 12 days, Feldstein said, “the takeaway message is that we as Jews, we as Americans, need to learn more about these countries. We need to understand their concerns and the opportunities for us to work together with them because they are doing phenomenal things there. We do not want to lose them as allies.”