Friday, February 02, 2018

'The harmony in Lebanon was skin-deep'

Two Lebanese Jews, Rabbi Abadie and Dr Madeb, tell their stories to the Jewish Press. There are now no more than 10 or 15 scattered and intermarried Jews living in the country today. The restored Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut is yet to open its doors.

Lebanon’s constitution was a boon for the Jews: It guaranteed the freedom of religion and provided each religious community, including the Jewish one, the right to manage its own civil matters, including education. “Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut as Paris, and the Jewish community prospered,” says Rabbi Abadie.

“Many Jews throughout the 1920s and 30s also used Lebanon as a pied-à-terre, a stop-over that led to greener pastures. As a result, the Jewish population remained in flux, numbering between 15,000 to 20,000,” he says. Our conversation is peppered with phrases in French and Italian because Rabbi Abadie, like so many with a cosmopolitan background, knows that sometimes the most concise and exact wording exists only in a foreign language.

Lebanon as a Jewish Refuge
In 1943, France agreed to transfer control of the country to the Lebanese government. In 1948, in the wake of the Israel’s War of Independence, the number of Jews in Lebanon increased due to Syrian and Iraqi Jewish refugees who were escaping persecution in their countries. They fled to Lebanon where they could live in harmony with the Druze, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.

The Bet Din of Lebanon circa 1969-1970 performing a wedding. L-R: Rabbi Abraham Abadie, Rabbi Yaakob Attieh, Rabbi Shahud Chreim
The harmony, however, was skin-deep; the position of the Jews was not entirely secure. In the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, several Jews were arrested and interned as Zionist spies. In addition, the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies debated heatedly on the status of Lebanese Jewish army officers. When the discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution to expel the officers, two Jewish army officers were discharged.

The Abadie family was one of the families that fled their home during this period and moved to Lebanon. The family of seven children was well-established in Aleppo, Syria, when the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was announced in 1947 and riots broke out throughout the Middle East.

“We lived next door to the synagogue. My mother watched the synagogue being looted and pillaged, the chief rabbi being dragged out and the Syrian police helping out with the violence,” says Rabbi Abadie, recalling his mother’s words. “We fled immediately through the back door without any belongings.”

For the next two years, utilizing the baksheesh (bribery) system to the fullest, Abraham Abadie traveled back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, trying to liquidate his assets. One night, he was tipped off that he would be arrested the following day. “That night he fled. He huddled among the livestock in the luggage wagon of a train heading for Lebanon. When the train conductor came to search the area with a torch, he barely escaped detection. Soon after, he leapt off the train and crossed the ravine between the Syrian-Lebanese border by foot,” says Rabbi Abadie.

For the Abadie family, Lebanon was home for the next 23 years. They shared friendly relations with their neighbors who were a mix of Druze, Shiites, Suniis and Christians. As an aside, Rabbi Abadie mentions that documentary filmmaker Rola Khayyat, who directed “From Beirut to Brooklyn,” connected Rabbi Abadie with one of his former neighbors for a friendly chat.

By 1958, the Lebanese Jewish population had reached its peak of 15,000 members. Most of these Jews lived in Beirut in the Jewish Quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil.

“In this area of about one and a half blocks, there were 16 synagogues that were always full,” says Dr. Madeb. “The shuls were run by a central committee that oversaw all religious affairs. The school systems (Otzar Hatorah, the Lebanese Talmud Torah and the Alliance Francaise  (Israelite - ed) taught in French, Arabic and Hebrew. The Talmud Torah taught more traditional Jewish subjects. A charity organization arranged school lunches for students who needed them.

When we reached the age of ten or eleven, we moved to the Alliance Francaise, where Hebrew subjects focused more on grammar and linguistic skills,” says Dr. Madeb. “In the summers, we traveled half an hour to the mountains and prayed in the Aleh and the Bhamdoun synagogues,” he adds. The harmony between the different sects in Beirut played out even in the synagogue: “Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Phalange Party would come to the Magen Avraham synagogue on Pesach to wish us a happy holiday,” says Dr. Madeb.

“We didn’t have any specifically Jewish Lebanese customs, because we were from Aleppo,” says Rabbi Abadie, “but I do remember that a special raffle was held for the children to see who would win the right to read the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro as translated and interpreted by the 10th century Rav Saadia Gaon. That booklet from which the children prepared for the reading was one of the things that Rabbi Abadie took with him when his family left Lebanon.

The Tide Turns
In 1958, Lebanon was threatened with civil war: Lebanese Muslims pushed the government to join the newly created United Arab Republic, while Maronite Christians in the democratic Phalange Party wanted to keep Lebanon aligned with Western powers. President Camille Chamoun requested U.S. military intervention, and once the crisis was over, the United States withdrew. The crisis was the signal for Jews to begin emigrating. While many left for North American, South America and Israel, the Abadie family, which was active in the Jewish community and provided the members with kosher wine and yellow cheese and matzah on Pesach, remained.

The next crisis hit in 1967, in the wake of the Six-Day War. “The Jewish quarter was in Wadi Abu Jamil. Although government forces protected us with a tank at the end of the street, we felt very isolated. We painted the light blue and kept down the shades. We didn’t show any sign of being Jewish when we went out into the street.”

Most of the Jews left Lebanon; for those remaining, tension reigned.

“One Friday morning, my father awoke to see a poster of himself and two other rabbis posted outside mosques. The three were labeled Zionist agents,” says Rabbi Abadie. The incident provided the impetus for Rabbi Abraham Abadie to contact his sons who had been in Mexico since 1965 and arrange for the family to enter Mexico as refugees.

For the Madeb family too, the time had come to begin moving out. Immediately after the war, two of the Madeb children left for Israel. Young Isaac Madeb, who had already begun studying medicine at the University of Lebanon in Beirut, made his way to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris where he asked to continue his university studies in a French university. “Even before the war, the animosity had been there below the surface. After the war, the Christian students avoided sitting next to the Jews in classes because they feared the Moslems and the Moslems avoided sitting next to us because they didn’t want to be associated with Israel,” he says. In Paris, the young student became active in the Toit Familiale (a Hillel House of sorts) where he worked to provide the students with a new social hall and kosher meals.

Back in Beirut after completing his internship, Dr. Madeb married and moved into a position at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. “I gained entry thanks to the help of a friend in the Lebanese Phalanges Party (the Christian Democratic party) who insisted that there was no difference between Christians and Jews,” says Dr. Madeb. “But this kind of talk didn’t land any of my friends jobs in public positions or banks,” he adds. After six months, Dr. Madeb and his bride made their way to the United States.

Final Years of the Jewish Community
The groundwork for the Lebanese civil war was laid in the Six Day War. Palestinian fighters known as fedayeen had moved their bases to Jordan and stepped up their attacks on Israel. Now they left Jordan and headed for Lebanon. Black September in 1970 saw the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) fighting against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). For the Abadie family, the spring breeze of 1971 brought their freedom. “Erev Pesach we received a telegram that we had visas to leave. Just like our forefathers, our freedom had come,” says Rabbi Abadie.

The family left Lebanon in August. Mexico City became home for the next eight years, until 1979, when Rabbi Abadie immigrated to the Unites States leaving the rest of the family in Mexico.

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