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The Jews of Lebanon: Another Perspective

On November 11 Jewcy published a piece by Isaac Binkovitz applauding a project to renovate the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut. "Although it would be a miracle if the community were ever to regain even a mere half of its numbers from just a generation ago", he writes, "Lebanon gives us reason to hope. … For me it is a story which speaks to the ability of Jewish culture to survive in many corners of the world."

Given that there are no more than 20 Jews in Lebanon, and these are too frightened to reveal themselves as Jews, even Binkovitz’s cautious optimism seems misplaced. The Jewish community in Lebanon is finished. A profusion of armed Islamic groups targets Jews and Israelis simply for being Jews. Until there is peace between Arabs and Israelis, there is no guarantee that Jews will ever feel safe in Lebanon. It may take a very long time indeed before the few beleaguered Jews in Lebanon are emboldened to come out of the closet, let alone identify openly as Jews within the precincts of the Maghen Avraham synagogue. While Binkovitz is ready to admit that Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of Arab lands were nearly universally expelled, and large Jewish communities in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Syria were violently uprooted – curiously, he idealises Lebanon.

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.

The vast majority of Lebanese Jews – and the numbers seem to be closer to 10 – 14,000 than 24,000 – actually fled the repercussions of the Israel-Arab conflict, notably after the Six Day War in 1967, and not after the civil war of 1975. A revisionist history by Kirsten E Schulze, the author of Jews of Lebanon, the only book about Lebanon’s Jews to be published in English in the last few years, tries to present all Lebanese, whatever their religion, as victims of the 1975 civil war. But while all sects were depleted through war and exodus, Schulze does not explain why the Jewish community was the only one to be wiped out. One of the prime movers behind the project to rebuild Maghen Avraham synagogue is a Shi’a Muslim named Aaron-Micael Beydoun. Beydoun started a website called the Jews of Lebanon. Visitors to the site were under the misleading impression that it was by and for Jews of Lebanon, whereas it represented only the thoughts of Beydoun himself. In fact Lebanese Jews in the diaspora have given Beydoun and his website a wide berth. Beydoun has a political agenda. His aim to exploit the Jews to project the illusion that the multi-confessional system still exists. Yet thousands of Lebanese have left Lebanon, southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Hezbollah, and the influx of Palestinian Arab refugees in 1970 and the 1975 civil war has upset its delicate political and population balance between Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Shi’a Muslim, Sunni and Druze. Lately, Beydoun, who has even been quoted by journalists as a spokesman for the Jewish Community Council, has closed down his website and channelled his efforts into getting the synagogue rebuilt. For Maghen Avraham to rise from the rubble would be the perfect advertisement for Lebanese pluralism. It would enable Lebanon to boast its tolerance of religious minorities – " look, we even have Jews in Lebanon!" Expatriate Lebanese Jews are reported to have pledged donations towards the restoration work. But other reports say that the donors have not followed through on their promises. Perhaps they have now realised that the synagogue will never again be at the heart of Jewish communal life. And although the reconstruction is said to be proceeding with Hezbollah’s blessing, there is no guarantee that the synagogue might not be shelled by some militia or other in the future. Beydoun’s other purpose is to drive a wedge between Lebanon’s Jews and Israel. This synagogue is being rebuilt to show that ‘ good’ Jews, untainted by any association with Israel, coexist with other minorities in Lebanon, and have a future there. In her book Schulze also portrays Lebanese Jews as Lebanese of the Jewish faith, with little attachment to Israel. She conveniently ignores the fact that just under half of Lebanon’s Jews – 4,000 – fled to the Jewish state. It is true that between 1948 and 1967 Lebanon was unique, being the only Arab country where the Jewish community increased in size, swollen by Jews from Syria and Iraq fleeing persecution. But what Schulze does not say is that even Jews born in Lebanon of Syrian extraction were denied Lebanese citizenship. I learned from an Iraqi Jew that he moved to Lebanon in the late 1950s because the only countries open to him and his family were Kuwait and Lebanon. As Kuwait has not had a Jewish community since the 1920s, moving to Lebanon was a no-brainer. Unlike Jews in other Arab countries the rights of the Jews of Lebanon were constitutionally safeguarded by a confessional system where each religious community’s ‘inalienable rights’ were acknowledged under Le Reglement – a set of rules written after the 1860 Civil War. This established a system of power-sharing in which all the major religious communities were represented. The Lebanese Jews were one of 17, the largest of six minor religious communities. It is true that unlike other countries Jews were free to emigrate. It is also true that their property was never confiscated, unlike other Arab countries. However, although the government did try to protect the Jews, it could not prevent Jews in 1948 being arrested and interned as Zionist spies, antisemitic incidents such as the bombing of the Alliance Israelite school in the 1950s, rioting and incitement. So is the rebuilding of the Beirut synagogue symbolic of the survival of the Jews? Or will it be a monument to an extinct race? Sadly, I feel it is the latter.

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