‘The harmony in Lebanon was skin-deep’

Two Lebanese Jews, Rabbi Abadie and Dr Madeb, tell their stories to the Jewish Press. There are now no more than 10 or 15 scattered and intermarried Jews living in the country today. The restored Maghen Avraham synagogue in Beirut is yet to open its doors.

Lebanon’s constitution was a boon for the Jews: It guaranteed the
freedom of religion and provided each religious community, including the
Jewish one, the right to manage its own civil matters, including
education. “Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East and
Beirut as Paris, and the Jewish community prospered,” says Rabbi Abadie.

“Many Jews throughout the 1920s and 30s also used Lebanon as a
pied-à-terre, a stop-over that led to greener pastures. As a result, the
Jewish population remained in flux, numbering between 15,000 to
20,000,” he says. Our conversation is peppered with phrases in French
and Italian because Rabbi Abadie, like so many with a cosmopolitan
background, knows that sometimes the most concise and exact wording
exists only in a foreign language.

Lebanon as a Jewish Refuge

In 1943, France agreed to transfer control of the country to the
Lebanese government. In 1948, in the wake of the Israel’s War of
Independence, the number of Jews in Lebanon increased due to Syrian and
Iraqi Jewish refugees who were escaping persecution in their countries.
They fled to Lebanon where they could live in harmony with the Druze,
Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.

The Bet Din of Lebanon circa 1969-1970 performing a wedding. L-R: Rabbi Abraham Abadie, Rabbi Yaakob Attieh, Rabbi Shahud Chreim

The harmony, however, was skin-deep; the position of the Jews was not
entirely secure. In the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, several Jews
were arrested and interned as Zionist spies. In addition, the Lebanese
Chamber of Deputies debated heatedly on the status of Lebanese Jewish
army officers. When the discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution
to expel the officers, two Jewish army officers were discharged.

The Abadie family was one of the families that fled their home during
this period and moved to Lebanon. The family of seven children was
well-established in Aleppo, Syria, when the United Nations Partition
Plan for Palestine was announced in 1947 and riots broke out throughout
the Middle East.

“We lived next door to the synagogue. My mother watched the synagogue
being looted and pillaged, the chief rabbi being dragged out and the
Syrian police helping out with the violence,” says Rabbi Abadie,
recalling his mother’s words. “We fled immediately through the back door
without any belongings.”

For the next two years, utilizing the baksheesh (bribery)
system to the fullest, Abraham Abadie traveled back and forth between
Lebanon and Syria, trying to liquidate his assets. One night, he was
tipped off that he would be arrested the following day. “That night he
fled. He huddled among the livestock in the luggage wagon of a train
heading for Lebanon. When the train conductor came to search the area
with a torch, he barely escaped detection. Soon after, he leapt off the
train and crossed the ravine between the Syrian-Lebanese border by
foot,” says Rabbi Abadie.

For the Abadie family, Lebanon was home for the next 23 years. They
shared friendly relations with their neighbors who were a mix of Druze,
Shiites, Suniis and Christians. As an aside, Rabbi Abadie mentions that
documentary filmmaker Rola Khayyat, who directed “From Beirut to
Brooklyn,” connected Rabbi Abadie with one of his former neighbors for a
friendly chat.

By 1958, the Lebanese Jewish population had reached its peak of
15,000 members. Most of these Jews lived in Beirut in the Jewish Quarter
in Wadi Abu Jamil.

“In this area of about one and a half blocks, there were 16 synagogues that were always full,” says Dr. Madeb. “The shuls
were run by a central committee that oversaw all religious affairs. The
school systems (Otzar Hatorah, the Lebanese Talmud Torah and the
Alliance Francaise  (Israelite – ed) taught in French, Arabic and Hebrew. The Talmud
Torah taught more traditional Jewish subjects. A charity organization
arranged school lunches for students who needed them.

When we reached
the age of ten or eleven, we moved to the Alliance Francaise, where
Hebrew subjects focused more on grammar and linguistic skills,” says Dr.
Madeb. “In the summers, we traveled half an hour to the mountains and
prayed in the Aleh and the Bhamdoun synagogues,” he adds. The harmony
between the different sects in Beirut played out even in the synagogue:
“Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Phalange Party would come to the
Magen Avraham synagogue on Pesach to wish us a happy holiday,” says Dr.
Madeb.

“We didn’t have any specifically Jewish Lebanese customs, because we
were from Aleppo,” says Rabbi Abadie, “but I do remember that a special
raffle was held for the children to see who would win the right to read
the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro as translated and interpreted by the 10th
century Rav Saadia Gaon. That booklet from which the children prepared
for the reading was one of the things that Rabbi Abadie took with him
when his family left Lebanon.

The Tide Turns

In 1958, Lebanon was threatened with civil war: Lebanese Muslims
pushed the government to join the newly created United Arab Republic,
while Maronite Christians in the democratic Phalange Party wanted to
keep Lebanon aligned with Western powers. President Camille Chamoun
requested U.S. military intervention, and once the crisis was over, the
United States withdrew. The crisis was the signal for Jews to begin
emigrating. While many left for North American, South America and
Israel, the Abadie family, which was active in the Jewish community and
provided the members with kosher wine and yellow cheese and matzah on
Pesach, remained.

The next crisis hit in 1967, in the wake of the Six-Day War. “The
Jewish quarter was in Wadi Abu Jamil. Although government forces
protected us with a tank at the end of the street, we felt very
isolated. We painted the light blue and kept down the shades. We didn’t
show any sign of being Jewish when we went out into the street.”

Most of the Jews left Lebanon; for those remaining, tension reigned.

“One Friday morning, my father awoke to see a poster of himself and
two other rabbis posted outside mosques. The three were labeled Zionist
agents,” says Rabbi Abadie. The incident provided the impetus for Rabbi
Abraham Abadie to contact his sons who had been in Mexico since 1965 and
arrange for the family to enter Mexico as refugees.

For the Madeb family too, the time had come to begin moving out.
Immediately after the war, two of the Madeb children left for Israel.
Young Isaac Madeb, who had already begun studying medicine at the
University of Lebanon in Beirut, made his way to the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs in Paris where he asked to continue his university studies in a
French university. “Even before the war, the animosity had been there
below the surface. After the war, the Christian students avoided sitting
next to the Jews in classes because they feared the Moslems and the
Moslems avoided sitting next to us because they didn’t want to be
associated with Israel,” he says. In Paris, the young student became
active in the Toit Familiale (a Hillel House of sorts) where he worked
to provide the students with a new social hall and kosher meals.

Back in Beirut after completing his internship, Dr. Madeb married and
moved into a position at the American University of Beirut Medical
Center. “I gained entry thanks to the help of a friend in the Lebanese
Phalanges Party (the Christian Democratic party) who insisted that there
was no difference between Christians and Jews,” says Dr. Madeb. “But
this kind of talk didn’t land any of my friends jobs in public positions
or banks,” he adds. After six months, Dr. Madeb and his bride made
their way to the United States.

Final Years of the Jewish Community

The groundwork for the Lebanese civil war was laid in the Six Day War. Palestinian fighters known as fedayeen
had moved their bases to Jordan and stepped up their attacks on Israel.
Now they left Jordan and headed for Lebanon. Black September in 1970
saw the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) fighting against the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO). For the Abadie family, the spring breeze
of 1971 brought their freedom. “Erev Pesach we received a telegram that we had visas to leave. Just like our forefathers, our freedom had come,” says Rabbi Abadie.

The family left Lebanon in August. Mexico City became home for the
next eight years, until 1979, when Rabbi Abadie immigrated to the Unites
States leaving the rest of the family in Mexico.

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