Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Arabs restoring Jewish sites in deference to Israel?

Why are Arab governments busy restoring Jewish sites and preserving Jewish culture? Lee Smith asks in The Jewish Tablet in a piece intriguingly entitled They dig us. Smith correctly identifies the need to appear tolerant to outsiders. But there are other reasons (as I try to unpack in my post below). One can equally argue that Jewish sites are threatened with destruction, and I find far-fetched Smith's theory that Arab governments are restoring Jewish sites in deference to Israel in its new role as superman saviour of the Arabs in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat. (With thanks: Eliyahu; Sacha)

“Where’s the synagogue?” I ask a young soldier in a beret. A member of the large security detail guarding the Lebanese prime minister’s residence, he is leaning against a jeep and cradling an automatic weapon in one hand. He pulls on a cigarette and regards me warily. I am a foreigner asking directions to a place of Jewish worship from a soldier too young to know Jews as anything but warlike neighbors to the south. He jabs his thumb to the left of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s new mansion, Beit al-Wasat, which was built on land worth tens of millions of dollars, right beside the Maghen Abraham synagogue, the center of a Jewish community that no longer exists.

It’s strange seeing the synagogue’s Hebrew letters in the middle of Beirut. Hezbollah billboards near the Southern border sometimes bear propaganda translated into Hebrew, and there are Hebrew letters on the tombstones of Beirut’s Jewish cemetery. But Maghen Abraham is a different story, a Jewish house of worship being rebuilt in an exclusive Beirut neighborhood with the blessing of the Lebanese government. It would be a symbol of rebirth, if not for the fact that no one is likely to worship there, certainly none of Lebanon’s five and a half million Jewish neighbors in Israel, with which the Beirut government is officially at war.

“It’s a vanished community in what was a vanished neighborhood,” says Nada Abdelsamad, author of an Arabic-language novel, Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories of the Jews of Lebanon, named after this onetime Jewish district. The book’s first printing sold out quickly. “People were interested to know something about the subject,” Abdelsamad explains. “Some people didn’t know we used to have an active Jewish community.”

Aside from Israel, Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country in which the number of Jews increased after 1948. It wasn’t until the civil war that started in 1975* that Jews began to leave the country in large numbers. The chief rabbi of Lebanon left in 1978. “The Jews left in silence,” Abdelsamad says. “They didn’t try to contact their old friends. So the Lebanese still don’t know what happened.”

A more pertinent question might be, what’s happened to make the Lebanese, and other Arabs, so interested in Jewish cultural remains like Maghen Abraham? In Cairo, the Egyptians are restoring a synagogue in a neighborhood called the Alley of the Jews. In Baghdad, officials are demanding the return of the books, manuscripts, and records of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which American forces retrieved in the early days of the invasion from a building belonging to the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat.

“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity,” the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, Saad Eskander, told the Associated Press. “To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic.” Or, as Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a New York Times interview, “What we are doing now is not for the Jews. It is for us, for our heritage.”

These restoration projects, as Arab officials like Eskander and Hawass have attested, are not meant to revive the Jewish communities of the Middle East. They are meant to convince the world of Arab tolerance. The Cairo synagogue renovation coincided with Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny’s bid to head UNESCO, a post he failed to win in part because of his apparent sympathy with Holocaust deniers and his anti-Israeli remarks. Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis. The mufti of Syria explained to a visiting delegation of American academics that the conflict with Israel was a war not against Jews but against Zionists.

And yet if you listen closely there is a deeper and more important subtext to the Arabs’ strange and sudden fascination with the remains of the vanished Jewish communities of the Middle East. These restorations of Hebraic antiquity are not simply a safe way of acknowledging the longevity, and thus legitimacy, of the Middle East’s oldest surviving religious community. They are also the means by which Arab governments have begun to recognize that community’s influence and power over their fates. For it is Jewish warplanes, not Jewish remains, that have Arab princes and presidents captivated. Nowhere has this been made more explicit than in the recent valentine to Mossad chief Meir Dagan published in Egypt’s semi-official daily newspaper Al-Ahram, calling him “the Superman of the Jewish state.” Dagan is worthy of Cairo’s love insofar as he “has dealt painful blows to the Iranian nuclear program.” Thus the only question Egyptians ask a visitor from Washington: When will the Israelis finally bomb the Iranian nuclear program?

*false: most Lebanese Jews actually left by 1967

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