The Jewish Chronicle ('Hope for Beirut's Jews as synagogue is reborn' by Vikki Miller) is the latest newspaper to fall for the fiction that the decimated Lebanese Jewish 'community' is a phoenix about to rise from the ashes, now that the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut has been rebuilt. Tellingly, the men behind the project (who probably live abroad mostly and wish to detach themselves from any link with Israel in order to further their business interests ) are too fearful of 'the authorities' to reveal their surnames to the reporter. Historian Dr Kirsten Schulze takes a few potshots at Israel and repeats the myth that 3,000 'Lebanese of the Jewish faith' left during the civil war.
All the other buildings in the block have been torn down, scheduled to be rebuilt as luxury apartments. Only one building remains standing - the last edifice of a once-thriving Jewish neighbourhood.Rising out of a sea of rubble, its newly-painted white and gold facade gleaming in the harsh Beirut sun, the Maghen Abraham Synagogue is a powerful symbol of a community that refuses to be defeated.
Despite the evident security risks, a small number of Jews have remained in Lebanon throughout the decades of violence and are now just months away from realising their communal dream - the restoration of their biggest and most magnificent synagogue.
"We started from nothing and now we are so, so close," says Sameer, standing outside the synagogue. He is a businessman in his fifties who sits on the Jewish Community Council, the tiny community's organising body, and has been overseeing the restoration project. "I have a hope that Maghen Abraham will act as a focal point and bring people back to our congregation."
Life for Jews in Beirut is tough. They have not been allowed to work in certain professions, including government jobs or the police, since 1967 and, until last year, were obliged to have their religion marked on their ID cards. Once numbering more than 20,000, the community has today dwindled to a mere 100-150 members, most of them over 50 years old. Its leader is the 65-year-old Isaac Arazi, who has been at the forefront of raising funds for the restoration.
But the discrimination and ever-present security threat does not deter this small community who say they are, on the whole, happy with their lot.
"Some days it is hard, other days not. You never know which it will be," says Sameer. "But I do not hide that I am a Jew, I am open enough with my religion. It is important to be proud to be Jewish."
Before the restoration work began
They say they stayed in Lebanon because of a profound sense of feeling Lebanese. Beirut is their home and they have ties here - most own, or are employed by, small businesses in the city.
"Why would I move?" questions Sameer's friend and fellow businessmen, Joseph (both men have asked for their surnames not to be used - speaking to a western journalist may result in unwelcome attention from the authorities) (my emphasis - ed). "My life is here. Everything I have is here."
The main bugbear of the community is the Lebanese's wilful confusion of the terms Israeli and Jew. Not only is this perilous in a country where Israel is a reviled enemy, it also infuriates the Jews, who do not consider themselves Zionists.
"I am a Lebanese Jew, I am not Israeli," says Joseph. "They refuse to understand that Israel is not important to us. I do not feel warm towards Israel, the same as most people in my country. I feel Lebanese, I speak Arabic, not Hebrew."The Maghen Abraham synagogue was once considered among the most beautiful in the Middle East. Opened in 1926, it was ironically damaged by Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982 and was left abandoned until renovations began last year. (This might be a myth propagated by Robert Fisk - ed)
Contrary to its recent turbulent history, Lebanon has been a country that prides itself on its religious tolerance and diversity. Judaism is one of 18 officially recognised religions, and the country was historically a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. "If Jews in the region ever found themselves in trouble, they would always go to Lebanon," says Dr Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer on Middle East History at the London School of Economics and author of the book, The Jews of Lebanon. "It was the only Arab country whose Jewish population grew after the establishment of Israel in 1948, swelled by Jews fleeing countries like Iraq and Syria."
During the 1950s Wadi Abou Jmil prospered. Small Jewish businesses abounded and children attended Jewish schools there. The Maghen Abraham synagogue hosted grand weddings, lectures and study sessions.
The community's demise began in earnest after the 1967 Six Day War, which ushered in 200,000 angry Palestinian refugees and a negative change in attitude from the Lebanese authorities. "Around 50 per cent of the Jewish population left between 1967-70. It became a dangerous place for them," explains Dr Schulze. "Most people went to France or America. They didn't want to go Israel as they viewed it as a nanny state for those not able to cope on their own, for Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors. They saw themselves as strong and looked down on people who moved there."The final blow to the community came at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, when the vast majority of the 3,000 or so remaining Jews fled as the country turned on itself. (Most Jews had already fled the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No more than 450 Jews were left at this stage - ed) The few who stayed have long yearned to rebuild Maghen Abraham, to bring some of the splendour of the old days back again, despite the risks.
Read article in full
How Syria and Lebanon became emptied of Jews
The whitewashing of dhimmitude in Lebanon
Update: the JC (24 September issue) has published the following letter in response:
I wish I could share in the optimism of Vikki Miller’s article headlined, ‘Hope for Beirut’s Jews as a synagogue is reborn’ (JC, 17 September). Just who will use the rebuilt Beirut synagogue? The few Jews (probably less than 50) are elderly, poor, and most live too far away to walk there.
As long as Lebanon remains a hostile collectivity of warring factions, Jews are terrified of identifying themselves. Those interviewed by your reporter will not reveal their last names for fear of ‘unwelcome attention from the authorities’: hardly the sort of environment conducive to the free and secure practice of Judaism.
Your feature whitewashes the antisemitism which eventually drove out the community: Jews interned in 1948, bombs exploding, Jewish youth organisations banned. It is true that numbers were bolstered in the 1950s by an influx from Syria and Iraq, but even those Jews born in Lebanon were denied citizenship. Incidentally, the oft-quoted but unsubstantiated claim that the synagogue was destroyed by Israeli shelling was first made in a book by Robert Fisk.
The truth is that the synagogue will never be more than a tourist attraction, or a mausoleum to a moribund community. Contrary to the impression given by your reporter, the Lebanese Jewish diaspora, which 40 years ago put down roots elsewhere, has not exactly rushed in with funding. The renovation of the synagogue brings prestige to those Jewish businessmen behind the project - who in fact spend most of their time outside Lebanon. It is good PR for Lebanon, allowing it to project a (bygone) image of pluralistic tolerance – but is it good for the Jews?
Mrs Lyn Julius
Harif – Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa