Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lebanese Jews quake amid talk of revival

The Magen Avraham synagogue in Beirut, destroyed during the Lebanese civil war.

This AFP piece on the Jews of Beirut reports that there are plans to restore the ruined synagogue with money from expatriate Jews. But any community revival would seem like 'pie in the sky' as long as the few Jews who remain are too terrified to reveal themselves. (With thanks: a reader)

BEIRUT (AFP) — It's not easy being Jewish in Beirut where the synagogue is crumbling, the rabbis have left, the community is dwindling and where Jews are commonly branded "Israelis".

The last vestiges of the Jewish community in Lebanon, the Magen Abraham synagogue in the Lebanese capital, reflects a community falling into oblivion.

Built in 1920 in the area of Wadi Abu Jamil, formerly known as Wadi al Yahud (the Jews' Valley), the synagogue is today a place of desolation.

The building is in a state of severe disrepair, the grounds overgrown and the gate shackled with lock and chain.

"Everything was looted during the (civil) war, marble benches and even windows," bemoaned Samuel, a member of the Jewish Community Council in Lebanon, who preferred to use a pseudonym.

Without a synagogue, or even a rabbi, the handful of Jews still left in the country -- about 300* according to official estimates -- are forced to pray at home.

"What we (also) lack is a place to buy locally produced kosher. We have no Jewish schools to teach our children prayer and Hebrew," said the 60-year-old Samuel, sitting in his shop near the seafront.

The seminary near the Beirut synagogue was destroyed during the war and the community has had no rabbi for years.

"We only speak Arabic. We just use Hebrew for prayer," added Samuel.

In the capital, along the former demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian areas, another vestige survives: the Jewish cemetery.

The inscriptions in Hebrew and stars of David on the entryway are covered with dust. "Very few people come," said Samuel.

Efforts are now being made, however, to revive the community, with plans under way to renovate the synagogue and the starting of an online blog called "Jews of Lebanon" (thejewsoflebanon.org). (This blog is not associated with the Jewish community, but was established by a Muslim - ed)

"We hope that this synagogue, one of the largest in the Arab world, will be renovated later this year or in 2009," said Samuel, adding that the renovations would be funded mainly by expatriate Lebanese Jews.

The blog seeks to raise the awareness of the Jewish community and to make it an active participant in public life.

Judaism is recognized as one of the 18 religious confessions in Lebanon, although the Jewish community has dwindled over the years, in the face of violence and prejudice.

"Before the (1975-1990) civil war, there were about 22,000* of us. It was after the 1982 (Israeli) invasion of Lebanon that our presence became considerably diminished," said Samuel.

For Efraim, also a merchant and a member of the Jewish Council, the community's official authority, one of the annoyances is living in a country where mixing the terms "Jewish" and "Israeli" is common.

Lebanon is technically in a state of war with Israel, which is commonly dubbed "the Zionist enemy."

"People still occasionally ask me if I am Israeli," said Efraim, also speaking under a pseudonym.

To him, "that's exactly as if we used the term Iranians to describe Lebanese Shiites."

"They do not understand that Israel means nothing to us. We consider it an enemy country as do all the Lebanese," he insisted.

Read article in full

Reprinted in Ynet News

* the usual figures given are: fewer than 100 are left of an original number of 14,000

NB There will be a showing of Yves Turquier's film Jews of Lebanon on 24 September in London. For details email info@harif.org

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