Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Jews of Lebanon: 'joie de vivre' in exile

A film about the Jews of Lebanon could have been rather depressing: it could have shown a bombed-out Jewish quarter, the Beirut synagogue overrun by grass and pigeons, unkept cemeteries, yet another community driven to extinction in the Arab world.

But Yves Turquier's film Jews of Lebanon (La petite histoire des juifs du Liban - 2006) is anything but. It's full of quirky characters and attractive ladies who themselves are full of joie de vivre. It's about how the spirit of the Lebanese Jews lives on wherever they have rebuilt their lives - in Mexico, Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Italy, America.

The film, which took a year to make and features interviews with 300 people in 10 different countries, was not short on nostalgia - for an idyllic childhood spent on the shores of the Mediterranean, winters skiing on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the food, the smells, the parties, the sunshine. But as one or two admitted from their new, spacious, exile in Canada or Mexico,' Lebanon now seems so small, and ' a bit of a hole.'

Lebanon was unique among Middle Eastern states: Jews were not just another minority but had constitutional rights, along with 17 other communities. But watching Turquier's film it appears that those rights, in many cases, did not extend to citizenship. Many Lebanese Jews, including Turquier's parents, had moved from Syria to Lebanon. Their children were born in Lebanon, but were not allowed to acquire Lebanese citizenship. A number of Jews were stateless. Apparently, a Lebanese national who married a stateless person would also lose his or her nationality.

Things began to go wrong for the Jews after the UN Palestine Partition plan in 1947. Jews were terrorised by hostile marching Muslims shouting Filistin baladna, al- Yahud kelabna (Palestine is our country, the Jews are our dogs). A few Jews were interned for a whole year while their children struggled to keep their businesses going. Jewish identity documents were stamped with the word Musawi or Israelite. The Alliance school in Beirut was blown up, killing the principal. Jews learned to bite their tongue in non-Jewish company.

Life seemed to return to normal until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six Day War. Then there were renewed disturbances and 5,800 Jews left out of 6,000. 'We understood that Lebanon did not belong to us anymore', one Jew sighed. The 1975 civil war pitted Muslims and Christians and the few remaining Jews were caught in the middle, sometimes literally in the firing line, with some unfortunates kidnapped and even killed. One woman said her young brother's first toy was a Kalachnikov, which he learned to assemble and disassemble.

But apart from the fugitives who fled penniless from the civil war, the Lebanese Jews were able to sell their property and leave with their assets to start afresh in the West.

Will the Jews ever return to Beirut? Not, says Yves Turquier, while Lebanon does not exist as a state but a collection of warring sects. Would the synagogue ever be rebuilt? Not while there was no guarantee that it would not be blown up. Meanwhile, Lebanon recedes further into the past, and to the younger generation means little more than rice in lemon sauce and hummus.

The final chapter of La petite histoire des juifs du Liban has already been written.

You can buy boxed sets of three DVDs on the Jews of Lebanon, priced at 100 Euros each. Proceeds will go to a Foundation set up to document the Jews of Lebanon. For further details please email bataween@gmail.com.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, sounds fascinating. As a Jew whose blood is one quarter Lebanese, I have to thank you for opening me up to this world. I will definitely have to check out this DVD.

http://eladthegreat.wordpress.com

lost tribe of lebanon said...

I saw the DVDs a couple of weeks ago (I got them thanks to you, indirectly!). It's nice to see that they didn't forget.
The new generations don't have any more links with Lebanon, which is maybe better for them. I find it hard to imagine a future for Jews in Lebanon, even with the renovation of Magen Abraham...
The only Lebanese Jews who don't have the nostalgia of Lebanon are those who fled to Israel...

ChAndre said...

Sorry not to agree with Lost Tribe of Lebanon's last statement, I met in France Jewish Lebanese who had relatives in Israel as well as descendants of Lebanese Jews who are now Israelis and they were unanimous about their families' nostalgia of Lebanon and, very often their regret of having flown to Israel instad of any other country since their choice will strongly jeoperdize any chance of them seeing Lebanon again. Actually many of them made that choice thinking that peace will be established soon. Some of them, despite everything were managing to come back to Lebanon before the 2006 war !!! I'm talking of course about the first generation, the one who had lived in Lebanon. More over, this is consistant with what I've read, about Lebanese jews who went to Israel who had hard time adapting there since they couldn't recognize themsleves in any of the two major groups namely Ashkenazis and Sefarades the reason beeing that they were too Mediterranean to identify to the first group and not religious enough to belong to the second group. This is what I know, I'll be very curious to find out where did Lost Tribe of Lebanon got his/her information from when saying that Lebanese jews who fled to Israel didn't have any nostalgia of Lebanon.

Anonymous said...

ChAndre I grew up until the age of 14 in the Jewish community of Beirut- described above, but may I also add, I have met and worked with numerous non-Jewish Lebanese in both Western and developing countries. This 'attachment' to Lebanon from the diaspora I feel is a 'Lebanese' culture, adapted by the 'middle-class' 'mosaics' representing the 6000 Jewish residents in Beirut in the 1960's.
It is a bilingual 'mosaic' culture, but misses out on the richness of the Arabic speaking middle-class culture of those days of poetry and theater. What is the 'Lebanese' culture (other than the amazing though over fried food?) ? To sit around - drink coffee - smoke cigarettes - taste delicious fresh fruit and reminiscing over the summer holidays in the summer mountain resorts where Kurd child slave labor did all the chores ? But those are the middle class mercantile ex-pats. These 'similar' Jewish Lebanese ex-pats for the most never reached Israel - or arrived and left soon after, because ALL Israeli middle eastern immigrants are in fact "Economic' refugees - i.e from Lebanon the lower classes, the 'Wadi-Abu-Jamil' residents who lets face it (because I lived there) lived for the most in minuscule run down apts on top of a refugee Kurdish shantytown where the Koshe Butcher was located, that would make San Paulo pavella's look like Hollywood!
These ex-Lebanese Jewish residents in Israel, many congregated around the synagogue of Bat-Yam (the poorer daughter of Tel-Aviv) would rather recall the street fights with the Kurds, or between members of the Jewish community themselves - (hence the expression - 'Il'u' (they began a fight /commotion) Beit -el-Shatah - So like 'Fiddler-on-the-roof' for East European descendants, these israeli Jewish Lebanese do not look back on 'Anatekva' or Wadi-Abu-Jamil.with any warmth, rather with the horror of spending the dusty mucky summer days and nights in what would not be remembered favorably.
May I finally conclude that Without Yves Turquier's presentation we would never have a record of one aspect of a period in my life - and I would have never really given thought to the similarities in backgrounds to the 'Anatekva' refugees. So this is why, to quote 'l'lost tribe of lebanon' "The only Lebanese Jews who don't have the nostalgia of Lebanon are those who fled to Israel..."

bataween said...

Your comment is very interesting and mirrors the assertion by the historian Georges Bensoussan - that the more middle class the refugee, the more nostalgic he felt about his country of birth.
Although those who ended up in Israel were generally speaking the poorer classes I would dispute your assertion that they were all economic migrants. They moved out of Lebanon because they had to, and moved to Israel because they had no other choice.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks BATAWEEN for your prompt and unexpected response - and I do accept your correction that all needed to leave, but could we compromise that not all the middle classes had sufficient funds to relocate (and establish homes and businesses) to Canada or the USA France or Latin America if they did not have family ties there.. I admit that I was initially very reluctant to 'blow' the myth of how 'beautiful' Lebanon was, since as I mentioned, without the recorded video / history, the life of one section of the community would have disappeared forever. By all means I fully agree that that eventually all the community needed to leave 'for the future of their children' - post '67 was when the world at large was expanding (and the PLO was taking a foothold in Beirut) and Lebanon for the Jewish community was in fact a 'hole'because there were no economic outlets / positions for for the youth that received a brilliant "Alliance Israelite Universelle" Junior / middle school education (alongside the vicious slaps by the infamous Monsieur Preciado the Director). Non were really left by '75 when the civil war was in full swing.But from '75 onward that was also the case for Middle Class Christian Families who also left in droves.
And on a lighter note - those in Israel would rather state 'Rahet Lubnan' {Lebanon has gone to the dogs} whilst those n the diaspora usually use the expression 'Lubnan Kanet Bitjenin' {Lebanon was 'fantabulous / fabulous etc} in line would we say "with the assertion by the historian Georges Bensoussan"