Originally posted March 2010

Information on the Lebanese Jewish community has always been sketchy at best. Looking back at Lebanese history, it is clear that the Lebanese Jewish community played a pivotal role in civil society. Throughout modern history, Lebanese Jews have been portrayed as being as “Lebanese” as any of their other countrymen. In addition, they were committed to the identity of Lebanon as a multi-communal state. They chose to be predominantly apolitical, and had good relations with all recognized confessional groups in Lebanon.[1]

However, over the past 50 years — with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the successive Arab-Israeli wars and the Lebanese Civil War — the size of the Lebanese Jewish population has greatly diminished. This community witnessed prolonged marginalization, discrimination, and hostility. Fearing for their safety and seeking to express their identity as being both Lebanese and Jewish, many members of this community departed the country. As a result, very few Lebanese Jews remain in Lebanon, and they have chosen to live as discretely as possible.

The number of Lebanese Jews who live in Lebanon has been the subject of intense debate in the media, with estimates ranging from just a handful to around 200 — and with nearly 2,000 dividing their time between Lebanon and other countries. Consequently, there are several thriving Lebanese Jewish communities worldwide, particularly in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, France, and Canada.[2] It has become apparent over the past few years that Lebanese Jews living in the Diaspora, despite their ordeal, have maintained their national identity through recreating Lebanese cultural ties abroad. They have formed vibrant, dynamic communities where Lebanese traditions and values are maintained and where memories of Lebanon, albeit painful, are constantly recalled and shared.

Lebanese Jews always have been a unique minority among many in Lebanon. The first significant wave of Jews arrived in Lebanon, particularly the Chouf mountains, in 1710. At that time, a large number of Andalusian Jews fled to Lebanon for safety. As a result, the Chouf village of Deir al-Qamr became one of the first villages in Lebanon with a significant Lebanese Jewish population. From there, several members of the community began to migrate internally to the commercial cities of Saida and Tripoli. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, as Beirut established itself as a dominant commercial hub, Lebanese Jews started to move towards Wadi Abu Jamil, which came to be regarded as the Jewish quarter of Beirut. As they became successful in commerce and trade, they began moving to the neighborhoods of Hamra and Clemenceau.[3]

The internal migration of Lebanese Jews and their historical presence in and outside Beirut can be documented through the various Jewish religious sites located throughout Lebanon. Deir al-Qamr is home to the oldest synagogue in Lebanon, which unfortunately lies in ruins. The Beth Elamen cemetery still exists in Sodeco Square. The Magen Avraham synagogue located in Wadi Abu Jamil, previously considered as one of the most ornate synagogues in the Middle East, was a source of pride for the Jewish community in Beirut.

According to an interview with Isaac Arazi, the leader of Lebanon’s Jewish community, the Lebanese Jews were highly integrated into Lebanese society and lived “normal” lives as Lebanese citizens. They held “good positions” throughout Lebanon, even in the army and the internal security forces.[4]In addition, two schools that teach Hebrew and subjects related to Judaism — the Talmud-Torah Selim Tarrab School and the Alliance School — were established in Beirut. Even after the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Lebanese Jewish community expressed their Jewish identity through sharing their religious traditions with fellow Lebanese citizens of all religious beliefs. Schulze writes: “In 1951, during the Passover celebration, the president of the Jewish community Joseph Attie held a reception at Magen Avraham synagogue which was attended by Lebanese Prime Minister Sami as-Solh, Abdallah Yafi, Rachid Beydoun, Joseph Chader, Habib Abi Chahla, Charles Helou, Pierre Gemayel and the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut.” Before the onset of internal strife in Lebanon in 1958, an estimated 14,000 Jews resided in Lebanon.[5]

The exodus of Lebanese Jews began in 1958, and increased following the Six-Day War in 1967. After 1967, only 3,000 Lebanese Jews remained in Lebanon as a result of the climate of fear that this community began to experience.[6]However, the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982 was the event that marked the beginning of the large decline of the Lebanese Jewish community in Lebanon on the one hand, and the growing suppression of their Lebanese identity on the other. Many Lebanese Jews who fled Lebanon during this period reported that although initially they did not feel directly threatened, eventually they began to feel unwelcome in their own country. Even though they were born Lebanese, Jews fell victim to brutal violence, discrimination, and hostility. Yet throughout all these hardships, many of the Jews maintained a strong sense of Lebanese identity. In the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, The Times of London reported that Lebanese Jews who had remained in Lebanon rejected an offer by the Israeli government to take up Israeli citizenship.[7] However, as the Lebanese civil war progressed, the widespread rejection of the Jews as “Lebanese” and the increase in violence against them drove the overwhelming majority of the remaining community to flee the country. The Jewish area of Wadi Abu Jamil was turned into an area of intense and vicious fighting, and was occupied by both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Amal Movement. In addition, between 1984 and 1987, several leading members of the Jewish community were kidnapped and killed by the Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth, a Shi‘ite Islamist organization.[8]

Currently, the Lebanese Jewish community in the Diaspora has maintained its Lebanese identity through strong Diasporic community cohesion. Many of the Lebanese Jews who fled Lebanon are in constant contact with their relatives and friends and even with other members of the Lebanese Jewish community abroad. The Internet has become the main vehicle through which Lebanese Jews can maintain contact. Social networking sites such as Facebook have allowed Lebanese Jews worldwide to create groups and fan pages to express their identity and share their experiences. One group on Facebook, the Kosher Sephardic Lebanese Cookbook group, was created to help Lebanese Jews in making Lebanese food for the Sabbath (Shabbat) dinner. The Magen Avraham synagogue not only has its own Twitter page,[9]but also has its own page on Facebook with over 3,000 followers who share pictures of the synagogue and of the Lebanese Jewish community abroad, in addition to discussing various events and topics concerning the Lebanese Jewish community. The “CyberWadi State”[10]website was launched by Lebanese Jews to find long-lost friends and relatives, share memories and experiences of Lebanon, as well as Lebanese jokes. In fact, the Internet has been vitally important in enabling the Lebanese Jewish Diaspora to highlight their attachment to their home country. Several Lebanese Jews stated that being Lebanese is “in their blood,” and that they live their lives according to Lebanese culture and traditions. One Lebanese Jewish woman living in New York who left Lebanon in October 1968 stated that she speaks Arabic fluently and enjoys watching Arabic movies and listening to Arabic music.[11]In addition, although most Lebanese Jews no longer have living relatives or friends in Lebanon, they all wish to be able to visit Lebanon and one day be able to practice Judaism while at the same time expressing their Lebanese identity and citizenship in their homeland. One Lebanese Jew living in New York claimed that “It is very important for people to know: A Lebanese is a Lebanese. No matter where he goes, he will never forget his country.”[12] One of the Lebanese Jewish community’s spiritual leaders agreed by saying, “My spirit is still in Lebanon, after all these years. It is the place I was born in and the culture I was brought up into.”[13] This strong expression of Lebanese identity usually evident in first-generation Lebanese Jews. However, it also is reflected, though to a lesser extent, in second- and third-generation Lebanese Jews living in the Diaspora. These younger generations are characterized by a religious yet modern and open-minded outlooks with a touch of Lebanese heritage that is relayed by their parents.

Furthermore, the official Lebanese Jewish Community Council recently launched its own website[14] — a significant move that gives the remaining Jewish community in Lebanon an official face, and allows for the Jewish community to initiate a call to raise funds for restoration of the Magen Avraham synagogue. Through the effort to rebuild the synagogue, the reconstruction of the public Jewish identity in Lebanon has taken a step forward. The previously rundown and abandoned Magen Avraham synagogue, which once was nearly all that symbolized the historical presence of the Jewish community in Lebanon, has recently begun renovation. This project was launched by the Lebanese Jewish Community Council and funded by both the Lebanese Jews still residing in Lebanon and those abroad.[15] In fact, Lebanese Jewish businessmen living in the Diaspora have helped by donating a large amount of money for this project alongside a $150,000 donation from Solidere.[16] These private Jewish donors constantly visit Lebanon to supervise the progress of the work. This project was launched with the dream that the Magen Avraham might be reestablished as a functioning synagogue in Beirut, a testament to the strength and persistence of the Lebanese Jewish identity. Many Lebanese Jews in the Diaspora believe that if the reconstruction of the synagogue is successful, this would be one factor that would bring the Lebanese Jews back home. Many Lebanese Jews have stated that the Magen Avraham synagogue would be the “biggest blessing” for the Jews of Lebanon — one that hopefully will lead Disapora Jews to return to Lebanon. A Lebanese Jew claimed that it would be much easier to visit Lebanon once Lebanese Jews have their own place of worship in Lebanon for the Shabbat.[17] Many efforts have been undertaken to bring the presence of the Lebanese Jewish community back to life. A modest attempt by Lebanese authorities and political parties pushing towards the inclusion of the Lebanese Jewish community in public affairs and Lebanese civil society came through Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, through his proposal that the Lebanese Cabinet amend the legislation that labels Lebanese Jews as “Israelis.”[18] Instead, they would be identified as “Jewish Lebanese.” One of the main reasons preventing the Lebanese Jewish community from participating in Lebanese civil society and public affairs is the stigma that surrounds them as being referred to as “Israelis” on their identification cards. Baroud’s proposal highlighted the importance of recognizing the Jewish sect in Lebanon as one of the 18 officially recognized religious sects “whose rights are legal and protected by the constitution.” Baroud stated that “The Jewish sect in Lebanon is recognized, and its rights are guaranteed by the ninth article of the Lebanese constitution that guarantees all the Lebanese freedom of religion.” He added that the proposal to adopt this draft law helps to differentiate between an officially recognized sect and “between the subjects of an occupying entity.” Even Hizbullah’s support in the restoration of the synagogue was seen as a blessing. In fact, Hizbullah welcomed the restoration of the synagogue, as it is a place of worship. “We respect divine religions, including the Jewish religion,” said Husayn Rahhal, Hizbullah’s media chief. He continued: “The problem is with Israel’s occupation (of Arab lands), not with the Jews.”[19]

However, it is unfortunate that the efforts to link the Lebanese Jewish Diaspora to Lebanon falls in line with the dilemma that Lebanon faces in dealing with the Lebanese Diaspora as a whole. Such efforts must be improved and developed through coordinating with civil society initiatives and individual Lebanese in order to nurture Diasporic relations with this community. As one Lebanese Jewish citizen living in New York stated, “We are just as [much] proud Lebanese as the rest of the people in Lebanon.”[20]

While it is true that many segments of the Lebanese Diaspora engage in family and communal practices to recreate their imaginary homeland, the Lebanese Jewish Diaspora do so to an even greater degree, as the scale of their displacement is far larger and as Jews are one of the smallest minorities in Lebanon. This fact explains, to a large extent, the active role of the Lebanese Jewish Diaspora in recreating their homeland in cyber space and their enthusiasm about the renovation of the synagogue in downtown Beirut.

 

[1]. See K. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2009).

 

[2]. C. Haibi, “There’s No Place Like Home,” Now Lebanon, March 13, 2009, .

 

[3]. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict.

 

[4]. Personal interview, October 2009.

 

[5]. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict.

 

[6]. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict.

 

[7]. Reported in R. Chatah, Now Lebanon, March 7, 2008, .

 

[8]. “The Jewish Revival,” Executive, No. 120 (July 2009), pp. 58-62.

 

[9]. For further information, visit: .

 

[10]. For further information, visit: http://.

 

[11]. Personal communication, December 2009.

 

[12]. C. Haibi, “There’s No Place Like Home,” Now Lebanon, March 13, 2009, .

 

[13]. Haibi, “There’s No Place Like Home,” Now Lebanon, March 13, 2009, .

 

[14]. For further information, visit: .

 

[15]. “The Jewish Revival,” Executive, No. 120 (July 2009), pp. 58-62.

 

[16]. Personal communication, October 2009. Solidere is a construction firm led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and tasked with rebuilding central Beirut from the destruction of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War.

 

[17]. Personal communication, December 1, 2009.

 

[18]. “Baroud Proposes Draft Law to Change Lebanese Jews’ Status from Israeli to Jewish Sect,” Now Lebanon, April 27, 2009, .

 

[19]. “Restoration of Lebanon Synagogue in Danger Despite Rare Hezbollah Support, Associated Press, November 21, 2008, .

 

[20]. Personal communication, December 1, 2009.