The Jews of Lebanon

Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut

Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut

I just wrote an article for Executive on the Jews of Lebanon. Of course being a Jew in Lebanon is not an easy identity to carry so the very few that are here exist under other idenities or with a low profile. However, the Lebanese Jewish Community Council is pushing hard for the reconstruction of the Magen Avraham synagogue and are hoping will bring about once again a open Jewish community in Lebanon.

The synagogue currently lies in tatters desperately needing reconstruction and almost teasingly surrounded by cranes. The synagogue lies in the the middle of the construction sites of Solidere in the heart of down town in Wadi Abu Jamil that used to be the centre of the thriving Jewish community in Lebanon. Dr. Kirsten Schulze, a professor at the London School of Economic, has written a fascinating and detailed account of Lebanese Jews in her book The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict. The Jewish Presence in Lebanon stretches back as far as 1,000 B.C and what is so fascinating about this community is that the number of Jews in Lebanon actually increased after the creation of Israel. Schulze explains that “Lebanon was the only Arab country in which the number of Jews increased after the first Arab-Israeli war.” Lebanese Jews were highly integrated into Lebanese society and became the only Jewish community in the Middle East constitutionally protected in the proclamation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Even after the first Israeli-Arab war the tradition of sharing religious festivals continued.

“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,” Schulze wrote.

The Jews of Lebanon therefore, were mostly patriotic Lebanese nationals driven out of the country, like members of the other confessions, by the civil war. It was the beginning of internal strife in Lebanon in 1958 that began the exodus of Jews from Lebanon.

The decisive moment, however, was the Israeli invasion and occupation of 1982, when the Jewish presence in Lebanon was effectively ended. Robert Fisk, a British foreign correspondent who lived in Beirut during the civil war, wrote in his book “Pity the Nation,” that “incredibly, the Israeli shells even blew part of the roof off the city’s synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil where the remnants of Beirut’s tiny Jewish community still lived… The last 10 families to worship there padlocked the door after the Israeli shells came through the roof.”

What was really interesting for me was the detail given in Shulze book on the relationship between the Kataeb and the Jews of Lebanon. The Kataeb was set up by Pierre Gemayel after being impressed with the Nazi youth and wanting to set up a similar organisation in Lebanon. This same organisation inspired by the Nazis would be the only party that would have Jewish members among its ranks and protected the Jewish community when civil unrest occurred. Further to this, Shulze retells the amazing story of when Yasser Arafat and the PLO take over the Wadi Abu Jmail area and the fearful Jewish community were shut up in the synagogue. Expecting persecution instead Arafat ordered that the Jews be given food and shelter and their homes protected.

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5 comments
  1. sean said:

    I’d love to see the article. Do you have an electronic version anywhere?

    Schulze was here in Beirut a few months ago doing a lecture on this subject. It’s one that fascinates me, and I’d love to hear it if you know of any other sources on the topic.

    • deensharp said:

      Hi Sean,

      Yeah it is a very fascinating topic. There are many sources on the web the best being http://www.thejewsoflebanonproject.org that has excellent information about the community and amazing pics (this is the Lebanese Jewish Community Council website). There is a lot of another good info on the web and a few documentaries that can be seen on YouTube. Al-Jazeera did a short but good docu on the community and many of the buildings that got destroyed around the synagogue. Otherwise, Schulze is the only one to give it proper in depth attention to my knowledge. Although I understand there is info in French but I am lacking in the French department…

    • Andrea said:

      It is a paradox: Jews Lebanese, jewish lebanese, didn’t commit bad actions , I do not understand why they should suffer so… Injustice makes me crazy…

  2. Joumana said:

    I’m sorry but this continuous comparison of the Kataeb to the Nazi party is entirely misleading. Pierre Gemayel was impressed by the discipline and dynamism of the youth movement, obviously not by any aspect of the ideology that fuelled the actual adult party, so why use that mother of all kneejerk-inducing buzzword in the first place? Going on to specify that the party protected Lebanese Jews cannot undo the unfair first impression caused by the Nazi-Kataeb parallel, which only allows less well-meaning people to cite that parallel with ulterior motives. Some of us have family ties back to the founders of the party and we have good reason to be offended when people repeating 3rd/4th-hand informationmake such an assimilation.

    • deensharp said:

      Joumana,

      I did not compare the Kataeb to the Nazis but said that “Pierre Gemayel after being impressed with the Nazi youth and wanting to set up a similar organisation in Lebanon.” I think maybe it would be fairer to say the Gemayel was more impressed by fascist movements as a whole rather than the Nazi’s in particular. The name of Kataeb came from the Spanish fascist movement the Falange party. The Kataeb slogan “God, the fatherland and the family” rings with fascist undertones and it must be remembered that the Kataeb is a highly centralized and authoritarian organization historically (admittedly not as much so today) but retains its President for life.

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