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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.