Saturday, December 27, 2008

The whitewashing of 'dhimmitude' in Lebanon

One of the few books produced in English in recent years documenting the history of the Jews of Lebanon has been The Jews of Lebanon by Kirsten E Schulze. While the book is thoroughly researched and full of detail, it suffers from a significant flaw. It downplays the dhimmi Jewish experience prior to the 20th century, when an interconfessional system of power-sharing between 23 communities in Lebanon came into force."The pre-20th century experience of the Jews of Lebanon was characterised by centuries of safety, hospitality and tranquility," Ms Schulze gushes.

What about inequality? The Jews and the Druze both suffered as dhimmis at the hands of the sunni Muslims in Lebanon, but in her book Ms Schulze mentions the word dhimmi only cursorily. What is more, the great mass of Jews, who lived in dire poverty in Lebanon and Syria before a prosperous urban middle class emerged under the French mandate, were the object of contempt and neglect from their neighbours.

This state of affairs prevailed as late as 1902, when M Angel visited the town of Sidon (Saida). His words are quoted in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Andrew Bostom (pp. 659-660).

The Jewish community of Sidon, Lebanon at the turn of the century (1902):

Formerly queen of the seas, Sidon, the flourishing city of the Phoenicians, is today nothing but a somber little town of 15,000 to 18,000 souls, a big village without commerce or industry. The great bulk of the population lives almost exclusively from the revenues of the numerous gardens that surround the town, from which the produce is exported to either Egypt or England, where the oranges of Saida1 are, apparently, particularly in demand. The inhabitants are crammed pell-mell into tiny houses, which could not be more dilapidated, made of stones gathered from the fields that it was not even necessary to quarry.

"I shall not even try to describe the maze of narrow streets, congested at practically every step by vaults supporting the houses, which are as if perched in the air, and where- without exaggeration- it is gloomy even at the height of noon. I have visited the oldest quarters of Jerusalem and Damascus, but I have never seen anything resembling the picture of desolate decay presented by Saida, a small town that knows no tourism and is still untouched by modern civilization.

"It is one of the most somber of these alleys that leads into the Jewish quarter via a low, narrow, little gate. Passing through this portal, we are in the ghetto. Imagine a long courtyard, a narrow and dark, a sort of corridor, as sinuous as can be, whose width is never more than two meters. On either side are two- and three-story houses- or rather cells cut into the walls, not receiving even a little of the dim light from the side of the narrow passage that forms the street.

It is interesting that Kirsten E Schulze quotes this last paragraph (p21). However, although Schulze does mention that the Jews of Saida were poor, she neglects to quote the following sentence:

"I asked myself more than once during my visits to the quarter whether people in Europe would be content to keep convicts in such a frightful prison where poverty is keeping a thousand of our coreligionists.

. . But continuing on our way, let us go further down this single street, which is not even paved. The unfortunate individuals who live there and to whom the street belongs (like the courtyard of a house) have asked in vain for the authorities to pave it at their own expense. The authorities are opposed to it! All the way at the end, we finally reach a small square of approximately 150 to 200 square meters, where the gay rays of sunlight are able to penetrate and where one can breathe a little more easily. it is on this square that the synagogue and Talmud Torah are to be found at the far end.

"I had just said that Saida is a town without commerce. The gardens which feed the great majority of the people belong almost exclusively to the Muslims who comprise about nine tenths of the population of Saida. The Christians, who are well protected by the consuls and by their priests who have influence with the authorities, enjoy a certain degree of ease and consideration. Only the Jews, left to themselves, stagnate in dark poverty in which the others have little share, and they are the object of contempt and disdain in the eyes of their neighbors of other faiths. Peddling is practically the only way of making a living. Saturday night, they leave their ghetto and disperse left and right throughout the countryside painfully struggling to earn a few miserable piastres, which they leave at home when they return on Friday. This occupation is certainly arduous, at times humiliating, and always thankless. It does not feed its man- as they say. But can they do any better? They know nothing else. The few Jewish carders who work at Saida do not always even earn their daily keep, which is about two piastres, or 0.35 francs! What misery for a man who has a family to feed."

This last passage too (in bold italics) is ignored by Ms Schulze in her zeal to project an idyllic picture of communities coexisting peacefully together.

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