A film about the Jews of Lebanon could have been rather depressing: it could have shown a bombed-out Jewish quarter, the Beirut synagogue overrun by grass and pigeons, unkept cemeteries, yet another community driven to extinction in the Arab world.
But Yves Turquier’s film Jews of Lebanon (La petite histoire des juifs du Liban – 2006) is anything but. It’s full of quirky characters and attractive ladies who themselves are full of joie de vivre. It’s about how the spirit of the Lebanese Jews lives on wherever they have rebuilt their lives – in Mexico, Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Italy, America.
The film, which took a year to make and features interviews with 300 people in 10 different countries, was not short on nostalgia – for an idyllic childhood spent on the shores of the Mediterranean, winters skiing on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the food, the smells, the parties, the sunshine. But as one or two admitted from their new, spacious, exile in Canada or Mexico,’ Lebanon now seems so small, and ‘ a bit of a hole.’
Lebanon was unique among Middle Eastern states: Jews were not just another minority but had constitutional rights, along with 17 other communities. But watching Turquier’s film it appears that those rights, in many cases, did not extend to citizenship. Many Lebanese Jews, including Turquier’s parents, had moved from Syria to Lebanon. Their children were born in Lebanon, but were not allowed to acquire Lebanese citizenship. A number of Jews were stateless. Apparently, a Lebanese national who married a stateless person would also lose his or her nationality.
Things began to go wrong for the Jews after the UN Palestine Partition plan in 1947. Jews were terrorised by hostile marching Muslims shouting Filistin baladna, al- Yahud kelabna (Palestine is our country, the Jews are our dogs). A few Jews were interned for a whole year while their children struggled to keep their businesses going. Jewish identity documents were stamped with the word Musawi or Israelite. The Alliance school in Beirut was blown up, killing the principal. Jews learned to bite their tongue in non-Jewish company.
Life seemed to return to normal until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six Day War. Then there were renewed disturbances and 5,800 Jews left out of 6,000. ‘We understood that Lebanon did not belong to us anymore’, one Jew sighed. The 1975 civil war pitted Muslims and Christians and the few remaining Jews were caught in the middle, sometimes literally in the firing line, with some unfortunates kidnapped and even killed. One woman said her young brother’s first toy was a Kalachnikov, which he learned to assemble and disassemble.
But apart from the fugitives who fled penniless from the civil war, the Lebanese Jews were able to sell their property and leave with their assets to start afresh in the West.
Will the Jews ever return to Beirut? Not, says Yves Turquier, while Lebanon does not exist as a state but a collection of warring sects. Would the synagogue ever be rebuilt? Not while there was no guarantee that it would not be blown up. Meanwhile, Lebanon recedes further into the past, and to the younger generation means little more than rice in lemon sauce and hummus.
The final chapter of La petite histoire des juifs du Liban has already been written.
You can buy boxed sets of three DVDs on the Jews of Lebanon, priced at 100 Euros each. Proceeds will go to a Foundation set up to document the Jews of Lebanon. For further details please email [email protected]