As the restoration of the Maghen Avraham synagogue nears its end, the Lebanese newspaper il-Lubnan asks if the Jewish cemetery on Damascus Road might be next. The cemetery has never been vandalised, but cynics might say it has already been consigned to oblivion by war damage and rampant vegetation. As usual the Jewish community’s demise is blamed on everything but antisemitism, and a rather venomous reaction to the potential restoration comes from Michael:”All Jews are part of Israel. I do not want them to restore it. Look what they do with our dead people in Israel.”
Located near Sodeco, on Damascus road, the Jewish cemetery, which has bared the brunt of the war, may soon be restored. A project has just been launched after the renovation of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, executed a while ago. It is still too early to know when work will begin. But first, let’s go back to the history of this site.
The Jewish community in Lebanon is very old. It used to comprise nearly 25,000* members in the early 50s. Then, the creation of the State of Israel, the civil war, the invasions of the new neighbouring state and the waves of emigrants greatly reduced the size of the community. Today, figures vary between 2000 (if Lebanese Jewish expatriates are included) and barely 30 members. These figures are taken from documents published on Nagi Zeidan’s website.
Nagi Zeidan is one of the few persons who did some research on the Jewish community. Little information can be gathered on this community or on the Jewish cemetery of Beirut. According to Nagi Zeidan, the oldest grave in the cemetery of Beirut dates back to 1829. Since then, it is estimated that more than 3,000 bodies have been buried there. It is even possible that some bodies have been buried beneath the current road of Damascus, built later on.
During the civil war, Damascus road formed the demarcation line between rival political groups. Therefore, the cemetery was located on the side of the Phalangists premises who totally mined the place, in order to prevent their opponents from crossing the cemetery to reach the other side of the town. Later on, the Lebanese Army cleared the cemetery, but the harm, caused mainly by bombings and rockets, has damaged it. It remains today virtually abandoned, eaten into by vegetation. However, as Nagi Zeidan pointed in his studies, it has never been vandalized.
The Lebanese-Israeli relations, often filled with violence, whether in the past or present ( we all remember the events of 2006), do not necessarily encourage the Lebanese to confuse Jews and Zionists: there are still people in Lebanon who wish to restore the old stones of the cemetery. The Jewish Community Council of Beirut, with the help of donors and Solidere, has been able, a while ago, to complete the renovation project of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil. Currently, the Council wishes to restore the cemetery.
We contacted the President of the Jewish Community Council of Beirut, Isaac Arazi.who said, “the project kicked off recently”. However, if you pass by Sodeco, you will see that nothing has changed: the door is still closed and the vegetation is getting more and more invasive.
In terms of funding, Arazi said “the Community Council took charge” this time. Thus, the project relies on donors, mainly on foreign Jewish funds and some other communities’ members’ contributions.
We asked Mr. Arazi if he received any feedback from residents or political parties. “It is not the case”, he said, “maybe because the project is still in its early stages.“
We also asked the neighbourhood residents about their opinion. Reactions were mixed: some showed indifference towards the project; others welcomed it with a philosophical attitude. According to Rim, who owns a store on Damascus road, “we should respect the dead people, regardless of their religious affiliation. It is a mark of respect”. Others are less enthusiastic. Mikhael, who was here in 2006, lives in a building that overlooks the cemetery. According to him, all Jews are part of Israel, “I do not really want them to restore it. Look what they do with our dead people in Israel. Why should we honor theirs here?”
* a more realistic figure is 14,000 – ed.