Arts & Culture

You Can’t Keep a Good Jew Down: Rebuilding Beirut, One Shul at a Time

The dilapidated Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut (from al-Mashriq) The narrative of Jewish history is one of a long line of painful defeats. And these are not defeats in the sense of the Italian army being defeated by Ethiopia or the … Read More

By / November 11, 2009

The dilapidated Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut (from al-Mashriq)

The narrative of Jewish history is one of a long line of painful defeats. And these are not defeats in the sense of the Italian army being defeated by Ethiopia or the Ottoman Empire losing at Lepanto. The Jews were defeated not in combat, for they fought few fights, but in unprovoked massacres, expulsions and dispossession. This painful history has left thousands of Jewish graves, marked and unmarked, scattered throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

In recent decades we have had two major victories, as qualified or problematic as they may be. One is the dramatic and remarkable creation of the State of Israel in 1948, symbolizing the rejection of diasporic history and diasporic defeat. The second is the surprising security and prosperity achieved by Jews in the United States and a few other Anglophone countries. The success of Jews in America is often taken as an unusual, perhaps fleeting, exception to the global rule of Jewish diasporic suffering. Others argue America is different and somehow immune, or at least less prone, to turning against the Jews. This debate over whether America can provide an adequate home for the Jews outside of Israel treats all other nations as intrinsically inhospitable to the Jews. On the whole, this view may not be unjustified, but it is clearly simplistic.

The fact is that millions of Jews continue to live in countries other than the US and Israel. Most intend to continue living relatively comfortable lives where they are, though they do face significant challenges at times. There has been much debate about the future of Jewish cultural life in Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France. Some of these communities are in decline and citizens there may be in actual physical danger. In these, and other countries, Jews face the serious and weighty decision of whether to stay or leave. I do not think we as a people should be overly zealous in pressuring our co-ethnics to abandon their homes. We cannot simply retreat into our own small corner of the globe and hope the world will pass us by in peace. We must exercise all reasonable caution. But this need not prevent us from seeking to bolster the vitality and security of Jewish communities around the world. Jewish institutions persist and are re-emerging in places like Poland, Germany, Lithuania, and even Lebanon.

In this entry I would like to share with you the remarkable renovation of the historic Magen Avraham synagogue in Beirut. It reflects the unique history of Lebanon and the Lebanese Jews. It is a history of tragedy more than one of cruelty or defeat. It is a rare instance in which the pain of Jewish history is shared in the broader tragic narrative of an entire nation. It is a well-known fact that the Mizrahi and Sefardi Jews of Arab lands were nearly universally expelled in the wake of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967 (or Algeria’s 1962 independence from France). Large Jewish communities in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Syria were violently uprooted. Approximately 1 million Jewish refugees fled Arab lands in the course of about two decades. By the 1970’s very few Jews remained in any Arab country. However, Lebanese Jews remained largely undisturbed through these decades, despite Lebanon’s 1958 civil unrest and American intervention.

In fact, Lebanon’s 24,000-member Jewish community in 1948 actually grew as it absorbed Jews fleeing other Arab countries. This growth continued until the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, when a general sectarian unrest precipitated the flight of thousands of Lebanese citizens. As the war drew on, more and more Lebanese of all faiths fled overseas. With the Israeli invasion of 1982 various Lebanese sectarian militias began to target Jewish Lebanese civilians as alleged traitors, spies and enemies. Most of the Jewish community was by this point already gone or on their way out of the country. They joined the 14 million-strong (mostly Christian) Lebanese Diaspora, concentrating in France, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. Today only a few hundred Jews remain in Beirut, where they keep a low profile for their own safety. Lebanese synagogues are present and in active use in Montreal and New York City, while other Lebanese Jewish communities are strong in Paris and Sao Paolo.

The Montreal-based Lebanese Jews have been actively involved, along with Jews and non-Jews inside Lebanon, in a recent project to renovate their historic grand synagogue in Beirut. It was built in the early 20th century through the cooperation of Sefardi and Mizrahi merchants and the local Beiruti Jewish community, and served as the central Jewish institution for Beirut’s Jews until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. Its use as cover by PLO fighters led the Israeli military to bombard and ultimately damage the synagogue. It has remained to this day a disheveled building in the shadow of the Grand Serail (Prime Minister’s headquarters), in disrepair and disuse. The renovation marks an effort to revive the now-dormant Jewish communal life in Beirut. The project funds are coming principally from the Lebanese Jewish diaspora, including support from Lebanese Jewish-Brazilian Safra banking family and undisclosed Swiss banks founded by Lebanese Jews. The Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth (Solidere s.a.l.), a large Beirut-based urban redevelopment company founded by the former and late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is providing ten percent of the project’s funding as part of an effort to help rebuild damaged places of worship throughout the country. Additionally, the Conseil Communal Israélite du Liban is collecting donations to fund the project. The renovations are expected to be complete in about a year’s time.

It is perhaps only a small step for a very small and endangered Jewish community. It will in all likelihood be a long time yet before there is a visible or at all comfortable Jewish community once again in Lebanon. It would be a miracle if it were ever to regain even a mere half of its numbers from just a generation ago. Lebanese history does not spark the greatest optimism for the future. However, in the grim book which is the history of the Jews, Lebanon gives us reason to hope. The courageous work being done to revive the Jewish community in Lebanon is not just a story of triumph for the few hundred Jews who remain in Lebanon or their scattered diaspora. For me it is a story which speaks to the ability of Jewish culture to survive in many corners of the world, connecting the Jewish people to the many nations of the earth. Perhaps some day, with an elusive comprehensive regional peace in the Middle East, Jewish life in Lebanon may once again flourish. Lebanon as a whole may once again return to its old glory as the cosmopolitan capital of the Levant. Israel and the Jews may for once have neighbors (both spatially and culturally) with whom they can hope for more than simply a mutual peaceful separatism. This may be too idealistic. This future is tenuous and far off at best. But in all the 5,770 pages of Jewish history, this is a very rare page that is written in ink and not soaked through with blood.

Images (all from the website al-Mashriq, Levant, Cultural Riches from the Countries of the Eastern Mediterranean):

Magen Avraham with the Grand Serail in background

Magen Avraham with the Grand Serail (Prime Minister’s headquarters) in the background, I think

 

Location of Magen Avraham

Magen Avraham location in downtown Beirut

Further reading on Magen Avraham’s renovation: In The Jerusalem Post Or from Bloomberg.com