Thursday, February 04, 2010

Restored Beirut synagogue: monument to the past

Although work has begun, only half the amount needed to restore the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut has been raised. The Jewish community is so tiny and insecure that it is highly unlikely that Maghen Avraham will ever be a working synagogue - rather, it will be a monument to the past. Frank and realistic piece on the BBC News website (with thanks: Sacha):

Only a few months ago, the old synagogue was in ruins.

It reeked of urine and decay. Trees and bushes grew under its collapsed roof and anti-Semitic graffiti covered the walls.

Dr Abraham Albert Elia (r) and his wife Lucy Elia (l)
Mr Elia met his future wife Lucy and fell in love at the synagogue

Today the tall roof is back, walls have been freshly cemented and workers are about to begin painting.

But the project is surrounded by secrecy.

"We are not afraid. We are just wary of the circumstances," said a representative of the Jewish community, who did not want to be identified.

Lebanon is home to armed Palestinian groups and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Hezbollah, a militant group which wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, is part of the Lebanese government.

But the representative of the Jewish community is confident that the reconstruction will be completed.

He says that so far the community, with the help of overseas donations, has managed to raise $2.5 million (£1.6 million) - half of the amount needed.

He also confirmed that Solidaire, a development company which is part of the business empire that belongs to the family of the country's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has promised a $150,000 (£94,000) donation.

"Overall, reaction to the renovation has been positive," says Nada Abdelsamad of BBC Arabic, who recently wrote a book about the Jews of Beirut.

"All political parties, including Hezbollah, said they welcomed the reconstruction."

"The question is, what will happen after. Will it be an active synagogue?" she asks.

Rare funerals

Neither Solidaire nor Beirut municipality agreed to BBC requests for interviews.

Lisa Nahmoud
But renovation is a good thing. Maybe the synagogue will attract tourists
Lisa Nahmoud

One Jewish man explained why everyone involved in the project seems to be shying away from it.

We spoke at an old Jewish cemetery in Beirut.

It's a resting place for more than 4,000 Jews and funerals, although rare, still take place here.

Over the years, the cemetery has been often looted, dozens of graves are missing their marble plates and many are covered in rubbish.

"We suffer the most from the lack of education, from the fact that people don't realise that being Jewish and being Israeli are two different things," he said. He would not give his name.

Officially, Jews are still one of 18 sects that make up Lebanon's multi-confessional society.

But Beirut today is very different from the place that still lives in the memories of Dr Abraham Albert Elia and his wife Lucy.

Magen-Abraham Synagogue is where they first met and fell in love 50 years ago.

Today both of them live in Israel.

"We had a very happy life in Lebanon. We never felt it was dangerous or that we faced any sort of risk. We had parties, picnics, we went out," remembers Lucy Elia.

She says the decision to leave was driven not by threats to themselves, but the realisation that their children had no future in Lebanon.

Back in Beirut, Lisa Nahmoud, a Jew who chose to stay in Lebanon, believes her community still has no future here.


Long ago she destroyed every single piece of paper identifying her as Jewish.

"I am Lebanese," she says, "all my friends are Muslims and Christians"

We spoke just around the corner from the synagogue, where Lisa feeds her favourite street cats.

"There are hardly any of us left here. Who will go to this synagogue?" she asked.

"But renovation is a good thing. Maybe the synagogue will attract tourists."

Against the odds, the Jews of Lebanon have managed to save their temple.

But their ageing community is disappearing and, until there is peace with Israel, their renovated synagogue is likely to remain a monument to the past rather than a promise of a future.

Read article in full

The cynicism behind restoring synagogues in Arab lands


bh said...

an interesting article about Silwan

i'd be interested in the readers opinions


bataween said...

Bh, the article says:

"In the late 19th century, Jewish Yemenites moved to live in the Arab village of Silwan. Nowadays, among many parties, specifically right-wingers and settlers, the old Yemenite settlement is considered a strong claim to the contemporary Jewish settlement in Silwan."

This is not strictly true. The Yemenites moved into tents and caves, then houses built for them to the north of the village, on an uninhabited hillside. What is a recognised Arab village? If you look at photos of the time, you can see not so much a village but a hamlet. I counted 25 houses. That’s probably no more than 200 people.

The author is trying to show that the Arabs were there before the Jews. It’s quite possible that one or two families traced their ancestry back to the 12th century. So what?

The neighbours might have saved their Jewish neighbours in the riots of 1929. Great, but the neighbours failed to save them in 1938 and 39, when the last of the Jews were forced out.Non-Jewish Arabs moved into the Yemenite houses. If the author of this piece is trying to show how well the Arabs coexisted with the Jews – it didn’t last too long.Neither can he denied the fact that the original Yemenite owners still have property rights.