Rebuilding work at the Maghen Avraham synagogue (EPA)
Nostalgia-soaked piece in Al-Jazeera focusing on the redevelopment of Beirut’s Jewish quarter, Wadi abu-Jamil, where the last Jewish resident, Lisa Srour, has been served notice to quit. The synagogue is the only reminder of a community long departed, but not enough funding has been raised to complete its renovation. Excited former Beirut residents in New York are planning a ‘roots’ trip; those Jews still in Lebanon are nervous and pick their words carefully for public consumption. (With thanks: Eliyahu)
Lisa has now vacated her childhood apartment, but still returns to the Wadi every couple of days to feed the alley cats. She paces her old street and visits its last surviving shopkeeper – Abed, a Sunni Muslim.
In the Wadi’s heyday, Abed’s father ran a bakery that catered to the Jewish community’s specialised bread needs during religious holidays. Now all that is left of the family business is a crowded one room grocery.
“Jews lived like any other Lebanese citizens,” he says from behind the vintage store counter, where he listens to French music on an old radio. “They have all their rights,” he continues. “Of course they are not like the Jews in Israel.”
Most Lebanese Jews resettled overseas, but a minority did indeed emigrate to the neighbouring Jewish state*. Lisa and other remaining Lebanese Jews say they rejected citizenship in Israel.
“Yasser Arafat, God rest his soul, was good to us,” Lisa says, referring to the late Palestinian leader.
During the 1970s, Arafat’s Fatah established a presence in the Wadi, having clashed with rightist Christian groups in the adjacent hotel district. Jews began fleeing the area to avoid being caught in the crossfire, and as they left, Shia refugees fleeing battles near the Israeli border began to settle in their place.
Lisa says Fatah opened an office facing her building, and recalls one of its lieutenants – a handsome man who used to look up at her on the balcony from the street below. He was in charge of food parcel distribution to Wadi residents when a Shia girl urged him to give food to the Muslims first, then the Christians and lastly to the remaining Jews. Lisa recalls his answer with a smile: “He told her, ‘we will give first to the Jews, then the Christians, then the Muslims’.”
The Israelis eventually ousted Fatah from Beirut in the early 1980s. During this time, Israeli shells fell on Magen Abraham**, forcing families taking refugee there to flee. The structure remained intact, but sharing the fate of so many historic buildings during the chaos of the 1980s, it was gutted and, after years of abandon, overtaken by a giant growth of dense vegetation. Until last year, the rusted outer gate was fastened with a decaying padlock and chain.
‘More than a country’
Back in New York, old Wadi residents are eagerly following the restoration of Magen Abraham on the internet, where they have been reunited with Lebanese Jews from around the world through the social networking site Facebook.
On a page devoted to the rebuilding of the synagogue, pictures have been posted showing the clearing of the brush, the building of a new red tile roof and a first coat of white paint applied to the yellowed exterior walls.
So far, the work is being paid for by private donations – rumoured to be from prominent Lebanese Jewish banking families – and $150,000 from Solidere – a grant which it has extended to all religious organisations restoring sites in central Beirut. But funding has fallen short of the total rebuilding cost, which is estimated at $1mn according the Jewish Community Council, an organisation created under Ottoman rule in the early 1900s.
The long dormant council, which once represented up to 15,000 Lebanese Jews, is now soliciting donations on the Facebook page and through its new website, peppered with optimistic statements calling for the rebirth of the community. Among these is a quote from the late Pope John Paul II: “Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message of religious tolerance and coexistence.”
But in a recent television interview, the council head, Isaac Arazi, refused to show his face on camera, fearing that his business would suffer if clients knew they had been dealing with a Jew. After our first meeting Lisa too displayed a great deal of hesitancy, asking that I not inform neighbourhood police that I had visited her. She folded my legal pad and wrapped it in a newspaper as a precaution when I last left her apartment. Indeed many of the estimated 200 Jews remaining in Lebanon keep a low profile.
To protect its Jewish citizens, the Lebanese government deployed the army several times to the Wadi area following resistance to the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, only a few incidents were reported and the community continued to grow, in stark contrast to Jewish communities in other Arab countries.
In a 1951 letter to the New York Times, prominent Lebanese Jewish publisher, T. Mizrahi wrote: “At no time have the Lebanese Jews been deprived of their rights as citizens, or their liberties.” Any sympathy Lebanese Jews felt for European Jews settling in Palestine was “purely religious” he wrote. “… All other ties – those of nationality, culture, language and customs bind them to their own mother country, whose faithful citizens they wish to remain.”
But sentiments began to change for many in the aftermath of the 1967 war, when Israel dealt a sweeping blow to Arab states. Troops were again deployed to protect the Wadi from protesters and Lebanese politicians offered assurances of their safety. But some grew uncomfortable with the growing anger toward the budding Jewish state and many quietly made plans for departure.
Sabah recalls how homes were suddenly emptied overnight. “You just knew that a family had left without making a lot of announcement.”
Half***of the Lebanese Jewish community departed between 1967 and 1971 according to author Kristen Schultz.
“There were a lot of problems at that time,” says Marcel Srour in Brooklyn. “After the 1967 war, things had changed, not drastically but we started to worry. The feeling changed, people used to look at us differently. Even though we knew we could practise our religion and they didn’t bother us with that, it was time to make a decision for the best.”
But many in the community stayed, apparently less fazed by the tensions felt by others. “At no time have we any concern about the faith of the Lebanese soldiers who guard our synagogue, many of whom are Muslims,” wrote Jewish Community Council president, Joseph Attie in the Toronto Telegraph in 1969.
Indeed, the second and final exodus of Lebanese Jews came at the start of the civil war in the mid-1970s, when concerns shifted from a war with Israel to a war between Lebanese Christians and Muslims. Wadi Abu Jameel was once again caught up in the conflict, as it straddled the ‘green line’ between predominantly Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut.
Although Lisa has fond memories of Arafat and his men, other Lebanese Jews have darker recollections. In Brooklyn, Vicky Zeitoune remembers being followed by a boy with a machine gun as she made her way home from school. “I remember running, very scared and my father said ‘this is it, we’re going to go right now’.”
The Zeitounes only packed their suitcases for a “vacation” in New York. But shelling broke out on the day of their departure and the family was evacuated in an armoured personnel carrier. Later that day, their home was destroyed.
The few families that remained faced forced home seizures, kidnappings and murders – about a dozen Wadi residents were kidnapped and killed during the 1980s.
Vicky’s husband stayed on and says he would never return. “But I would like to go,” she says. “I think people should go back to where they came from, their heritage … and even though we are Jewish we always thought that we were Lebanese first.
“We are very proud to be Lebanese. We lived very well as a Jewish people, there was no persecution.”
Even Marcel, who left in the turbulent aftermath of the 1967 war, is determined to return. “I’ll go there one day. I’ll be very, very happy to see it again, growing and flourishing peacefully between all religions together.”
* In fact half of all Lebanese Jews left for Israel
**an allegation made by journalist Robert Fisk
***others estimate 90 percent