Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Kuwait

Some evidence suggests that Jews settled in the geographic region today known as Kuwait via Iraq after the destruction of the Second Temple. Although this is impossible to prove definitively, Jewish tribes were present throughout Arabia in the period preceding the founding of Islam, and thus there is strong evidence for centuries of pre-Islamic Jewish presence in Kuwait. However, at the time of its establishment in 1613, there are no records of any Jews residing in the sheikhdom. The modern community dates from its founding in 1776 following Sadeq Khan’s capture of Basra, Iraq when leading a small cohort of troops to establish a trade post in Kuwait. 

Jewish Community in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries 

The community grew significantly in the second half of the nineteenth century as more Jews from Iraq established trade networks throughout the Indian ocean region and East Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century, some 100 to 200 Jews lived in Kuwait. The neighborhood in which the majority of Jews chose to live eventually became known as firı¯j al-yahu¯d [the Jewish quarter]. Jewish families chose not to send their children to government schools, and instead registered them in missionary schools whose main language of education was English. Parallel to this, Jewish children received a religious education through the synagogue, following a trend that was similar in other Baghdadi satellite communities on the Indian subcontinent and in East Asia. 

In Kuwait, during the late nineteenth century up until World War I, Jewish trading houses flourished, selling items such as spices, pearls, and precious metals. The main commercial activity was textiles. The Jewish community maintained a separate textile market, which was part of the Baghdadi Jewish trade diaspora that stretched from England to China for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jews were also the main producers of alcoholic beverages in Kuwait, and were permitted to sell alcohol in public, although at times this created friction with the local Muslim religious authorities. Some notable Jewish businessmen in Kuwait included Saleh Mahlab, who opened the first ice factory in 1912, and Gurgi Sasson and Menashi Eliahou, who were important traders and financiers. 

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was tremendous bilateral migration between Kuwait and Iraq. For example, the most famous Jewish Kuwaitis are the musicians Saleh and Daud al-Kuwaiti, who were born in 1905 to parents who had immigrated from Iraq. They became famous first playing in coffee shops and later for the sheikh; however, they eventually immigrated to Iraq where there was a larger music scene. 

Overall, life in Kuwait was stable and safe for Jews throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were free to practice their religion and educate their children as they wished and were given a piece of land upon which to establish a cemetery. However, life was not without some anti-Jewish bias. Kuwaiti children’s songs from this period include lyrics such as “Jew, Jew, he who does not pray—a chicken is better than him,” although much of this antipathy can be understood as anti-foreigner or anti-Muslim sentiment, as opposed to specifically anti-Jewish feelings (F. A. Alkanderi, 450)

Dissolution of the Community 

The dissolution of the Jewish community of Kuwait stemmed from both economic and political factors. In 1917, Sheikh Salem al Mubarak came to power and exerted pressure on the Jewish community to stop producing and dealing in alcohol and spirits, which was causing friction between the local Jewish community and the Muslim majority. This, combined with the ascension of King Faisal to the throne in Iraq in 1921, led many Baghdadis Jews in Kuwait to return to Iraq. In the 1920s, the decline of the pearl trade due to cheaper cultured pearls from Japan, combined with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, bankrupted many Jewish businesses. In parallel to this economic and political unease in Kuwait, tensions between Muslims and Jews in Mandate Palestine further exacerbated the precarious position of the Jewish community by the late 1920s. Thus, throughout the 1930s, the Jewish community of Kuwait slowly dissipated, with the majority of Jews returning to Iraq or joining other Baghdadi satellite communities. By the outbreak of World War II, there were virtually no Jews left in Kuwait. 

Contemporary Kuwait 

There is no longer a functioning Jewish community in Kuwait, and to this day, Kuwait has not established diplomatic relations with Israel. The only tangible legacy of the Jewish community in Kuwait that remains is the Jewish section of the cemetery on Khalid Ibn Al Waleed Street in Kuwait City. However, the government of Kuwait has approved the construction of a new city called Madinat Al-Hareer, which will include a skyscraper that will, among other things, house a mosque, a synagogue, and a church under a single roof, although the future of this project is unclear. 

  • Al-Ibraheem, Yacoub Youssif. "History of the Jews in Kuwait." The Scribe- Issue 78. Alqabas, Oct. 2005. Accessed July 22, 2014. http://www.dangoor.com/issue78/articles/78068.htm.
  • Alkanderi, Faisal Abdulla. 2006. “Jews in Kuwait.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 17 (4): 445–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/09596410600968715.