Nothing is certain in Jews-of-Lebanon Wonderland

The Maghen Avraham synagogue, now restored

Did you know that Beirut has a restaurant run by Jews? Or maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it does, but the customers are sworn to secrecy.

Alice would have recognised Lebanon as Wonderland: nothing is certain when it comes to real facts about the Jews of Lebanon. Some say there were 22,000 in the community’s 1950s heyday. Some say there were just 5,000. Today there are probably fewer than 50 – but if you believe Isaac Arazi, self-appointed leader of the Jewish Community Council, there could be as many as 300 (Arazi’s figures are somewhat elastic: in other articles, his estimate is closer to 100 or 150). So how do you explain that in 2000, there were 5,965 Jews on the electoral register?

Curiouser and curiouser, concludes Michel Leclercq in a special issue of LIBAN FOCUS (No.64) on the Jews of Lebanon, timed for the renovation of the Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut.

Leclercq tells us some interesting factoids: the last rabbi left in 1977; kosher meat arrives from Damascus and is frozen by the community; a rabbi from Istanbul comes to supervise its preparation every two or three months. The dead are washed and ’embalmed’ by Muslims, before being buried in the SODECO Jewish cemetery. It’s hard to know what is true and what isn’t. Leclerc also tells us that Lebanon welcomed Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Underlying the article is the assumption that the Jews are Lebanese patriots, guaranteed constitutional rights as Lebanon’s 18th community. They did not flee Lebanon, but the PLO. They had little interest in going to Israel.

The article is partly influenced by fiction propagated by Dr Kirsten Schulze, whose book Jews of Lebanon exaggerates their numbers, posits them as anti-Zionist victims of Israel who preferred to flee to France or America, and claims that Lebanon was always a haven for Jews.

The morale of the story: don’t believe everything you read – especially about the Jews of Lebanon.

The LIBAN FOCUS article is not available on the internet. A copy of the article may be emailed on application: Email [email protected]

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