Tag: Jews of Lebanon

Discoverer of Sidon Torah detained at Beirut airport

The man who discovered Torah scrolls in a Lebanese synagogue (story broken by Point of No Return last week) has been prevented from leaving Lebanon.

The Sidon synagogue was taken over by squatters 10 years ago (Photo: Rebecca Collard)

Nagi Gergi Zeidan, an expert on the Jewish community of Lebanon and author of Juifs du Liban, has been undertaking research into Jewish sites. He was detained for eight hours at Beirut airport as he was about to board a plane for Brussels.

Belgium-based Mr Zeidan was eventually released but  his passport was confiscated. He was left wondering how he would survive this unexpected extension to his three-month trip, as he had just four Lebanese Euros to live on.

The authorities have imposed the travel ban on Mr Zeidan following a complaint by Samo Behar, vice-president of the Lebanese Jewish community.

The complaint alleged that Mr Zeidan had stolen the Torah scrolls (in fact there are two) and was intending to smuggle them out of the country.

Nagi Zeidan told Point of No Return that it was absurd to suggest that he would smuggle out scrolls weighing 50 kilos in his luggage.

The scrolls were discovered in the Sidon synagogue, a building which has been lived in by a Syrian-Palestinian squatter and his family for the past ten years. Following Mr Zeidan’s discovery, the scrolls were taken away to the home of the squatter’s father two kilometers away.

The squatters have demanded $100,000 for the scrolls.

The scrolls discovered by Nagi Gergi Zeidan are unusable (Photo: Nagi G Zeidan)

However, the scrolls are worthless as they are unusable (pasul) . They are in poor condition and have holes in them. According to Jewish law, pasul scrolls must be stored in a Geniza or buried.

Mr Zeidan would like to see the scrolls buried in the Jewish cemetery in Beirut.

He had originally contacted Samo Behar with a view to finding a solution for the scrolls, but received no reply.

Mr Zeidan intends to prove his innocence before the local Sidon magistrate in the next few days.

 

 

 

Lebanese Torah scroll ‘could be 400 years old’

Point of No Return exclusive

 

A Torah scroll which may be 400 years old has been discovered at the synagogue in Sidon, Lebanon. The discovery was made by Nagi Gergi Zeidan, an expert on the Jewish community of Lebanon and author of Juifs du Liban.

The scroll was written on deerskin

Zeidan was shown the scroll, which was stored in a black bin bag, by a member of the family which has lived in the synagogue for at least 10 years. The scroll was written on deerskin. Zeidan thinks it may be at least 400 years old. He has sent a fragment to the American University of Beirut to be carbon dated and is awaiting the result.

The scroll was kept in a black bin bag. Click here to see video

The current residents of the synagogue are a Palestinian-Syrian family. They are demanding $100,000 for the scroll. However, it is in poor condition and has several holes. According to Jewish practice, an unusable or pasul scroll  has to be buried in a geniza, a store containing documents bearing the name of God.

The synagogue at Sidon is the site of  one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Lebanon. A synagogue is believed  to have stood on the site of the current building since 632.

On the walls, there are still traces of Stars of David. Hebrew inscriptions have been daubed over with red paint.

But while little remains of the synagogue’s former life, tourists with Lebanese Jewish roots from Canada, France and Brazil have continued to visit.

In 2012, two rabbis from Neturei Karta — a group of anti-Zionist Jews who believe that the state of Israel should not exist — prayed in the synagogue.

There is no Jewish community remaining in Lebanon.

More about Nagi Zeidan

Jews fled Ukrainian pogroms for Egypt and the Levant

All eyes are on the war in Ukraine. An overwhelming number of Jews are among those expressing support for its beleaguered civilians – and rightly so. But it must not be forgotten that the Jewish people and the Ukraine have a  checkered history. Even before the so-called ‘Shoah of bullets’, resulting in the murder of a million Jews in the Ukraine and Baltic states during WWII, the Ukraine was the scene of appalling pogroms, such as the Chelmniki massacres of 1648,  which claimed 100,000 Jewish lives. Then came the terrible pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in a massive wave of Jewish migration to the US and Europe. A small number of refugees fled to the Middle East.  

The Ashkenazi synagogue in Cairo built in 1894 by Ashkenazi refugees from pogroms in Ukraine, Poland and Romania.

In April and May 1881, terrible pogroms erupted in Elisavetgrad, the Jewish quarter of Kyiv, Chipola, Ananiev, Vasilkiv and Konotop. There were also pogroms in Poland and Romania.

Some Ashkenazi families moved to Egypt. From 1865, the Ashkenazim of Cairo maintained a separate communal organisation from the dominant Sephardim and Mizrahim. They were concentrated in the Darb al-Barabira quarter. in 1917 the Ashkenazi population was swollen by the arrival of 10,000 Ashkenazim chased out of Palestine by the Ottoman governor Jamal Pasha.

Compiling a list of Egyptian-Jewish surnames, an Israeli diplomat, Jacob Rosen, was surprised to find many Ashkenazi names. He estimated that the Ashkenazim comprised 20 percent of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 40s. Many intermarried with the local Sephardim.

In 1894, the Ashkenazi synagogue was built in Cairo. It was damaged in riots in 1945 but was restored in 1950.

A few families also moved to  Syria and Lebanon. A group of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim arrived in Beirut in the 19th century.

Historian, author and expert on Lebanese Jewry Nagi Georges Zeidan says that this community intermarried with the Jews of Beirut but continued to retain an Eastern European accent in Hebrew. In time their Yiddish names were replaced with Sephardi ones.

Researching Lebanese-Jewish surnames, Zeidan found at least eight Ashkenazi names: Rosenthal, Leibowitz,  Kaminsky, Lamen from Huysatin, Levy and Pikovsky from the city of Odessa, and Kugel from Simferopol. The Lichtman family even produced a Chief rabbi for Lebanon, Ben Zion Lichtman. He was born in 1892 in the Ukrainian town of Brajiow.

Zeidan points out that following the Crimean War in 1853 between Russia and Ottoman Turkey, several Ashkenazi families from Eastern Europe settled in Baghdad.

 

Lebanese ‘family reunion’ was a cynical fundraising event

Last month, the Lebanese embassy in Paris invited Lebanese Jews for a ‘family reunion’. Was this a ‘welcome home ‘ or a transactional event, a cynical,  fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon? David Daoud does not mince his words in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily, Tom):

A wedding at the Maghen Abraham synagogue in Beirut

Identity is complicated.

The incongruity of my fluent Lebanese Arabic and the Star of David always hanging around my neck usually prompts curious inquiries into my origins – those origins. I prefer to cut those questions short, invariably responding, “I’m from Connecticut.”

Particularly with Lebanese interlocutors. I know they’ve probably heard of Lebanese Jews. Maybe from their parents, or they’ve seen Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue, or watched a documentary about the community. Rarely have they met one, but seldom is their curiosity about my origins meant to initiate a genuine inquiry into Lebanese Jewry – our identity, customs, sentiments, or beliefs. Rarely, it seems, are Lebanese interested in us as real people rather than props. These interactions often carry an implicit invitation to claim my presumed “Lebanese patrimony,” tied to my parents who left in 1989, thus stamping my hechsher on an imagined pluralistic Lebanon, a country which rejects my Jewish identity. But I unfailingly refuse these invitations.

I’m simply not Lebanese. I don’t, and don’t want to, fit into their “Lebanese” box, a token, yet another “Arab Jew” – that irksome term seemingly designed to erase our ethnic identity – playing a role created by someone else.

That’s why, when I saw that the Lebanese government had taken the unusual step of inviting Jews who’d left Lebanon to a “family reunion” in its Paris embassy, where the Lebanese ambassador told them the Lebanese state was in danger and “all sects” needed to come to its aid, calling on them to come “home,” I didn’t feel the delight of a long-delayed recognition of kinship. Quite the opposite.

I grew up thoroughly American in Connecticut, where I formed my most meaningful early memories and childhood connections. Without the memories (or sufficient substitutes) which anchor the older generation’s nostalgic, albeit complicated, longing for a “lost homeland,” I failed to develop any feelings for Lebanon. What little childhood exposure I had to Lebanon came from my mother – the language, music, or occasional dish – but it failed to resonate. I knew of Khalil Gebran, of Fairouz, Sabah, and Wadih al-Safi, and kibbeh nayyeh. But my father preferred Frank Sinatra, the Foundations, and Bob Dylan, among others; these were the soundtrack of my childhood, before I even formed my own musical tastes. And I thought kibbeh nayyeh was gross. I still think it’s gross.

My mother’s stories about Lebanon seemed like fables, their characters and settings lacking counterparts in my childhood surroundings. And her Arabic lessons only distanced me from Lebanon. I chafed against learning a language incomprehensible to my American friends, and which, at the time, served only to expose me to the region’s widespread antisemitic and anti-American sentiments. America was my only country, and Israel was my ancestral homeland – two nations that gave my people dignity, whose sights and smells I’d experienced firsthand, and which embodied identities I lived daily, not an intangible one left behind by my parents in a distant land where Jews were second-class citizens.

When I first visited Lebanon as an adult, my sentiments and identity had been fully formed. The experience reinforced my emotional detachment, the sense that I couldn’t belong without abandoning the meaningful parts of my identity. I still remember fretting over whether to pack my tallit and tefillin and my relief as I passed through Beirut airport’s security without them being discovered. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but why would I even want to belong to a country where I’d ever have to feel that way, where I felt the need to hide my identity?

I also found myself unable to relate to the Lebanese – their culture, history, aspirations, triumphs, travails, and prejudices were simply not my own. I spoke their language and could understand them on an intellectual level. But I would never innately relate to the world through a “Lebanese lens.”

Not to mention the casual antisemitism, and the characteristic smugness with which Lebanese would pontificate – inaccurately – on Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t everyone, but there was enough of it to be off-putting. The Shiite woman and her daughter who recounted their fear of being poisoned by Moroccan Jewish hoteliers in France; the self-assured Sunni doctor who lectured me on how the “pornography” of the Song of Songs accounted for Jewish women’s “loose morals”; the Christian woman who surprisingly borrowed a Qur’anic term – al-maghdoub alayhum, those who anger God – to describe Jews.

I also recall my inability to respond. It is with that mindset of indifference and wariness that I initially reacted to the Lebanese Embassy in France’s invitation to local Lebanese Jews to a meet-up in Paris, an invitation that several dozen Jews answered by attending, joined by France’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Korsia. “Are these your cousins?” a friend of mine jokingly texted. “God, I hope not,” I dismissively responded. To another friend, I responded “Mixed feelings, tbh.”

I’d felt those same mixed-to-negative feelings about Maghen Abraham’s restoration a decade prior – “That’s nice, but so what? Actually, maybe it’s a bad idea for Jews to visibly congregate in a country dominated by Hezbollah…”

But then I read the fine print, and indignation replaced indifference. A 70- year-old Jewish woman who had left Lebanon three decades ago asked Ambassador Rami Adwan “Why now?” He responded that Lebanon was “currently in danger, and all of its citizens, of all sects, must help save it.”

This wasn’t a welcome home party. Per An-Nahar, “this meeting dealt with the Jews as…as one of the capabilities [qudra min qudurat] of the Lebanese diaspora communities which, as a result, have the abilities to help Lebanon emerge from its downfall.”  This was a transactional event, a fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon, with some Jews thrown in for good measure. Lebanon was cynically manipulating these guests – their nostalgia, memories, and longing for their birth country – to use them as an untapped resource, no different from the offshore hydro-carbon deposits it is disputing with Israel.

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Don’t invest in Lebanon, ‘it’s a Ponzi scheme’

What is the motivation behind the  recent ‘family reunion’ in the Lebanese embassy in Paris, when Jews were invited to ‘save Lebanon’? Tony Badran writing in Tablet says it is just the latest in a series of scams:

Jews of Lebanese heritage meeting the Lebanese ambassador in Paris

The Lebanese ambassador to France made news last week when he invited a number of Jews of Lebanese heritage, who had long since fled that country, for a “family reunion” at the embassy in Paris. A bewildered and wisely suspicious 70-year-old woman, who left Lebanon decades ago, asked the ambassador, “Why now?”

Lebanon is “in danger,” the ambassador replied. “All its citizens who belong to different religious sects must come together to save it.”

Allow me to translate: What we have here is known as the Lebanese swindle.

You might have heard about the country’s two-year-long economic and financial crisis, the result of a Ponzi scheme that went bust in late 2019, exposing the bankrupt, dysfunctional country that always lay beneath the glitzy façade of the Travel + Leisure version of Beirut. This nationally managed scam can be traced back to the end of the country’s civil war in 1990, when the warlords and oligarchs launched a campaign to attract the capital of Lebanese expats. These expats were enticed with a glorified tourism ad campaign promising that they could take ownership of their country and rebuild it, a fallacy perfectly calibrated to tug at their heart strings, appeal to their vanity, and suspend their disbelief. Oh yes, yes: This country run by the Assad crime family, whose “statesmen” are the very same warlords from the civil war, and where a terrorist organization continues to wage war against its southern neighbor—this country is now, at last, a real, normal state. Bring your money, children of Lebanon, park it in our banks, move your families home, and start businesses here.

The expats bought the dream, and once they’d invested their entire lives in it, they became accomplices in the perpetuation of the lie. Even non-Lebanese foreigners followed suit and moved their dollars and euros, even their families, to Beirut. They all became instrumental in expanding the national Ponzi scheme from mere false advertising into policy advocacy in Washington, D.C., and capitals across Europe. And boy did U.S. and European officials buy into the scam, too. In fact, much of what passes for policymaking on Lebanon in the United States and Europe is premised on the same emotional and sociological impulses leveraged by the tourism ad.

Take, for example, comments from the French and British ambassadors in 2018—a year before the Ponzi scheme was exposed and Lebanon went belly up. French Ambassador Bruno Foucher reassured the Lebanese that President Emmanuel Macron would never allow Lebanon to be destabilized, describing the country as a “model of savoir-vivre.” For his part, the outgoing British ambassador, Hugo Shorter, using the hashtag #beautifullebanon on Twitter, offered his own contribution: “Lebanon … is an exceptional country. There’s no other country like it in the world that I’m aware of.” Between skiing in the morning and swimming in the Mediterranean in the afternoon, you see, you don’t even notice the garbage overflowing in the streets. “There is a complexity here, which is, from a professional point of view, very stimulating,” Shorter went on. Just make sure you bring U.S. dollars and deposit them in Lebanon’s exceptional, stimulating banks.

Shorter’s tourism ad testimony went on, reflecting the Lewis Carroll-like, smoke and mirrors, mind-altering and reality-warping nature of his host country: “When I first arrived, I felt it was a bit like looking at a kaleidoscope that was constantly changing … its complexity is such that there are many different levels of reality and dynamics that are overlapping.”

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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