Monday, May 18, 2015

It's risky being Jewish in Lebanon

 The renovated Maghen David synagogue is about to re-open. Or is it? The Forward has been denied permission to go inside, but an exception has been made for Al-Monitor (see article below) . Until the situation for Lebanon's Jews ceases to be precarious, it is doubtful whether the synagogue will ever open its doors.

The renovated Maghen Avraham synagogue (photo: Reuters)

The Forward reports:

Five years after reconstruction, the synagogue’s doors are still locked and the lights are off. Gaining entry is nearly impossible, requiring permission from the Jewish community’s president, and bureaucratic wrangling with Beirut’s security officials. The Forward’s request to visit the site was denied.

The Maghen Abraham Synagogue, originally built in 1925 and one of more than a dozen synagogues that operated in Beirut, is one of the scarce remnants of Beirut’s Jewish past. Its delayed opening has shed light on just how precarious the situation is for Jews in Lebanon.

Since the exodus of nearly 1 million people during the 15-year-long civil war, only a few dozen Jews remain, living quietly in a country that sees the Jewish state to its south as an enemy.

“The word ‘Jewish’ is a very heavy word in Lebanon,” said Nagi Georges Zeidan, a Christian Lebanese historian writing a book on the country’s Jewish history. “Those who stayed keep it a secret. They’re scared to death, and they often don’t even tell those they are friends with that they’re Jewish.”

Among Lebanese, the synagogue’s delayed opening is widely rumored to be due to threats, as spillover from the war in neighboring Syria continues to threaten the country’s fragile sectarian fabric.

Yet while the synagogue undoubtedly has its opponents in Lebanon — it was attacked twice in 2009 — Bassam al-Hout, a Muslim lawyer for the community denied the rumors of threats as baseless.

Isaac Arazi, a representative of the Jewish community, who raised funds from the Lebanese diaspora to renovate the site, insisted that it’s not anti-Semitism but national instability that has prevented the synagogue’s reopening. Without wishing to elaborate, Arazi told the Forward in an email, “The situation of Jews is like all Lebanese citizens — nothing sure, nothing certain.”

But in a country that has seen continual conflict with Israel over the last few decades, there is a risk to being Jewish in Lebanon.

“The Israelite community” — a name Jews have lobbied to have changed in an attempt to distance themselves from Israel — is officially recognized as one of Lebanon’s 18 sects, but members of the community shy away from attending public functions on the community’s behalf, presumably for their own anonymity and safety. They pray quietly in homes in East Beirut.

But Jews didn’t always live in the shadows.

Lebanon’s history is unique to the Arab world. Its Jewish population soared following the establishment of Israel, as Jews fleeing elsewhere around the Middle East settled in the country known as a bastion of diversity. In the 1950s, the population peaked at about 10,000, a significant jump from the some 3,500 who lived there in 1932, some with a lineage believed to date back millennia.
Relations between Jews and others were generally positive, Zeidan said, though tensions flared at times with nationalists following Israel’s founding. He cited a series of violent incidents targeting Jews, but said that much of Lebanese society viewed Jews as one among Lebanon’s many religious sects, with a reputation as honest tradesmen.

Mariam, a bubbly Jewish woman in her 80s who lives alone in a city several hours outside Beirut, reminisced fondly about her childhood memories of the Jewish quarter of Beirut. She remembers listening in on holiday services there, though women did not sit inside synagogues.

Her husband, a Christian, died seven years ago, and her modest apartment is decorated with an assemblage of religious symbols — a picture of Jesus with an aura around his head, a Hanukkiah with leaning candles and a copy of the Ten Commandments, which hangs on the wall.

“This country was beautiful,” Mariam, who asked that her real name not be used, said in Arabic. “There were Jews, Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Kurds, and in one family, you could find all of them. But now, people here don’t like Jews.”

With the Six-Day War in 1967, much of the Jewish population fled Lebanon ­— but it was during Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war that Jewish life in the country came mostly to an end.

While Jews were careful to remain politically neutral during the war, the Jewish quarter of Beirut sat squashed between the Sunni Muslim and Christian areas. As a result, Jewish structures were caught in the crossfire, looted and desecrated — turning the quarter into a no-go zone.

It was, ironically, an Israeli bombardment in 1982 that destroyed the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. It had been meant to target Palestine Liberation Organization members who were, allegedly, protecting the site.

As the community dwindled and ultimately disappeared, Mariam felt safe — even as widespread anger grew against Israel — only because her husband was a Christian.

“The Arab people just don’t understand that Jews are not all Zionists, and that is the problem here,” she said. “About half the people know I’m Jewish, but they know my family is Christian. I’m not afraid for my own safety. I’m old, but I am afraid for my children.” Her children, however, have all been raised Christian.
The country’s Jewish cemeteries are unkempt and overgrown with bushes and thorns, and its old Jewish homes are now lived in by Christian or Muslim Lebanese citizens.

In Saida, a city two hours south of Beirut, the old Jewish quarter is today a rundown, impoverished part of the city. A street sign that once read “Jewish quarter” has since been replaced with a “Gaza street” sign — a protest against Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006. Posters with the faces of the PLO’s former and present leaders, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, are plastered to the walls.

Down a short and narrow dark pathway off the main courtyard, behind a big, wooden door on the left, hides the city’s old synagogue, built in the late 19th century.

A 25-year-old man of Syrian descent with a carefully trimmed beard answered the door with a welcoming smile. Inside was the only home he and his family have ever known, with several pairs of shoes scattered by the door, and blue paint, one of the last reminders of its past as a synagogue, fading from the stone walls and ceiling.

Zeidan estimated that Lebanon’s remaining Jewish community will perish within the decade.

Read article in full 

This article in Al-Monitor strains every sinew to disassociate Jewish religion from nationality and Lebanese Jews from Israel. Israel is in any case an unappealing destination because it is at war. Once the war is over, the Jews will return: the food and atmosphere are so much better in Lebanon!

Bassem al-Hout, a Muslim lawyer who represents their interests, told Al-Monitor that even though the synagogue renovations are nearly finished, security in the country is not high enough yet for it to reopen.
“We are waiting for the struggle to end,” he said, referring to the regional conflicts spilling into Lebanon from Syria and Iraq. “The region is on fire.” Hout stated that when the synagogue is opened, Jews and supporters from around the world will be invited for a dedication ceremony.

For now, the Jewish community within Lebanon’s borders practices its faith in the privacy of home. Hout explained, “They are afraid of a reaction by individuals," who do not understand their religion is not synonymous with the State of Israel.

But Hout also said the Lebanese public needs to be educated about the difference between Lebanese Jews and Israel, and it is the responsibility of the media to expose such information.

Edy Cohen of Bar Ilan University in Israel told Al-Monitor, “Most Jews from Arab countries don’t relate to the Israelis," but rather they relate to the countries that raised them. Cohen himself, a Lebanon native, identifies as Lebanese first, differentiating his nationality from his religious practice. He left Lebanon when he was 19 after the country’s civil war. He said his father was kidnapped by Hezbollah a few years before, in 1985, and was killed when the Israeli government refused a prisoner exchange.

He confirms most of the Jews in Lebanon did not want to migrate to Israel during the war, saying, “Israel is always in a state of war; it’s known." They had relatives in other places such as the United States, France or Canada. Cohen believes those who fled Lebanon for the West did not want to start a new life in a place of war.

But Hout said that Lebanon’s Jews “do not like Israel; they are Arabian.” Like Cohen, Hout believes Lebanese Jews identify with their nationality versus their religion.

In Tel Aviv, Canadian-Israeli citizen Corey Gil-Shuster hosts a YouTube channel called “Ask An Israeli,” a project he started nearly four years ago in 2011, to better understand the narrative on the streets of Israel about the Palestinian conflict and the Arab world around them.

In one episode, entitled “Meir: Lebanon,” dated September 2013, he interviews a Lebanese-Jewish man called Meir, who admits he misses Lebanon. Meir said that in Israel, people are stressed, but in Lebanon, “You lived like kings. In Lebanon, things were great: the food, the atmosphere.” But the war changed everything. Meir once had Muslim friends, but now there is no one. His own family lives in the West, while for now, he feels more comfortable in Tel Aviv than New York. He would return to Lebanon if there were peace.

Shuster follows with another episode in which he asks Israelis whether it is possible to have peace with Lebanon. While most say the divide is the fault of “terrorist organizations,” namely Hezbollah, one man, Shai, who served in the Israeli military and was deployed to Lebanon in 1977, believes the “noisy minority” — extreme parties in both Lebanon and Israel  prevents relations between the countries.

Shuster told Al-Monitor the knowledge base in Israel is a “closed system.” He explained many Israeli citizens are unaware of the Arab world outside their borders, including Lebanon, and base what they know off “what’s on TV” at night. He said there are “only two narratives; you’re either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli," and there’s little understanding of an alternative storyline.

Most texts point to the formation of an Israeli nation through Jewish-religious roots. The interpretation of how their people-group should exist, however, is changing due to many Israelis abandoning their religious beliefs and practices.
But those living in the Arab world who find solace in the Jewish religion are finding their identity torn. In Lebanon, Hout stated there are “individuals who do not see the difference because of the war.”


Empress Trudy said...

It's no longer called "The Foward" or it's longer "The Jewish Daily Forward". They cut the name to "Forward", removed all Yiddish and Hebrew and changed the logo scheme to remove all references to Israel's blue and white.

bataween said...

Oyvay! things are going backward...

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

This article by Prof Walter Russell Mead discusses the plight of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East.