Tag: Jews of Lebanon

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.”

Ambassador invites Jews ‘to save Lebanon’

Lebanon may be on its knees, but its ambassador in Paris has held a ‘family reunion’ with  its Jews, attended by France’s Chief Rabbi. What is behind this initiative? Possibly a last-ditch attempt to project an image of interfaith harmony and pluralism. But with the antisemitic Hezbollah in charge, it is hard to see this meeting as anything other than an exercise in nostalgia. The Jerusalem Post reports: 

Lebanese Jews pose on the staircase of Lebanon’s Embassy in Paris

About 50 Jews and other people from Lebanon or with roots in Lebanon took part in a “family reunion” at Lebanon’s Embassy in Paris on Monday, after they were invited last month to join the event by the embassy.

The Lebanese news source Annahar called the event a “diplomatic precedent…in the presence of representatives of all the spiritual families that make up the ‘Mosaic of the Land of Cedars.'”

According to Annahar, France’s Chief Rabbi Haïm Korsia took part in the event as well, along with Lebanese Jews spanning four generations, including both those who left Lebanon and those born outside of the country. A photo from the event showed a crowd of people of all ages standing on the staircase in the embassy, along with the Lebanese ambassador and chief rabbi.

According to the report, some of the Jews who took part in the event still visit Lebanon due to interests in the Jewish endowments in the country.

One woman, age 70, who left Lebanon 30 years ago, asked Lebanese Ambassador Rami Adwan “Why now?” with Adwan replying “The Lebanese state has sometimes breached its duties. This state is currently in danger, and all its citizens belonging to different sects must unite to save it.”

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How Rachel Ben-Zvi brought Jewish girls from Syria to Israel

The 1941 Farhud massacre in Iraq was the trigger for Rachel Ben-Zvi, wife of Isaac, the future president of Israel, to begin to recruit 50 Jewish girls from Syria and Lebanon in 1943 to be trained and educated in the Land of Israel. But crucially, the girls needed to be taken to Palestine before they reached marriageable age. Many were then sent back as shlichot to encourage  local Jewish youth to join the Zonist enterprise. Report in The Librarians (with thanks: Motti) 

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 Girls at the Ayanot training farm

 It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. 

Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture.

 Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

 From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].” 

 “The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.” 

 That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents. 

 The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. 

She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study.

 When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls, while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ 

During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!’”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock.

 She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community. 

 
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The Lebanese Jew who now serves in the IDF

Major K  and his family were among the last Lebanese Jews  to leave for Israel. Today he works in Israeli intelligence monitoring the activities of Hezbollah and other threats from a country he grew up in. Yoav Limor interviewed him for Aish: 

Major K works for Unit 8200 in Israeli intelligence

If K. has one dream, it’s to go back to Beirut. To walk around the neighborhood he grew up in, to meet his old neighbors and friends. 

To sit in restaurants, to go for vacations in the north like he did when he was a kid. “I’ll be the first to go to Lebanon once it’s possible,” he says.

Sergeant Major K. is known in Unit 8200, Israel’s Central Collection Unit of the Intelligence Corps, as “The Lebanese”.

 He came to Israel from Lebanon with his family, among the last Jews who lived there, and was drafted into the IDF and made a career in Unit 8200 focusing on his former home – Lebanon and the fight against Hezbollah, who took over the country he grew up in. 

 He’s 39 years old, married with two girls aged 8 and 3. His perfect Hebrew can be misleading: when he came to Israel, aged 12, he didn’t speak a word. 

Everything he learned he learned by himself. Word after word, sentence after sentence.

His mother tongue is Arabic, and just like any educated Lebanese, he also speaks French and English. He studied in a Christian school, and most of his friends were Christian.

 “Most of the Jews left before us. Most of them after the Six Day War, and then after the Yom Kippur War. Those who stayed, dispersed after the civil war began in 1975, many moved to France or Canada, because they knew how to speak French, and also to Brazil.” 

 His parents lived in Beirut. “They were convinced that in a few months the war will end, but like all the Jews who remained in the city, they decided to go up a bit north, to a more remote mountainous area. 

They were sure they would return when the fighting subsided, but it didn’t, and we stayed there.”

His father was a successful salesman and his mother a housewife. He remembers a normal and happy childhood of a regular family: two parents with four kids, K. and his three sisters.

 In retrospect, he can say that during those times there was considerable persecution of Jews, even though his family never felt it. “I don’t remember being scared to say I’m Jewish.

 Our neighbors knew we were Jews. My father came from a religious home, and we would celebrate the major holidays – Passover, Rosh Hashanah.”

 I was never ashamed or scared to say I was Jewish.
They would get matzah for Passover from Syria, where there was still a large Jewish community, with a chief rabbi, kosher slaughter and bakeries. “In Lebanon all that disappeared years earlier, but we learned to get by. We lived among Christians, but we upheld our Jewish lives. Father prayed at home. On Yom Kippur the neighbor would come over before the fast ended to warm up our food, and the neighbors would move our car so we didn’t desecrate the holiday.” 

 Q: Weren’t you scared? 

 “I was a Lebanese Jew. I was accepted like they accept a Lebanese Christian. I studied in a Christian school that was somewhat religious, and anyone who needed to know – they knew I was Jewish and didn’t attend religious lessons. I didn’t go around screaming that, but I was never ashamed or scared to say I was Jewish.”

They avoided going to the Shiite areas of Beirut. 

“We lived in a Christian area, which was protected. The moment you ventured a bit south, you were exposed. My father didn’t like going to these areas. He was connected to military people who would give him passage, but he was very careful.” 

 He remembers many vacations during his childhood in Lebanon: In the snowy mountains, and on the beach during summers. Long vacations that sometimes lasted the whole summer.

In the 1980s the family would get in their car, drive south to the border, pass through Rosh Hanikra, and when the vacation ended go back home. 

During holidays they would come to Israel, to visit his mother’s family. Today it sounds like science fiction, but in the 1980s they would get in their car, drive south to the border, pass through Rosh Hanikra, and when the vacation ended go back home. 

“I remember holidays, the hotel in Nahariya. We would usually come for Rosh Hashanah, because it coincided with the vacation in Lebanon.” His father was the only one then who spoke Hebrew. The rest of the family spoke with their relatives in Arabic.

At the end of the 1980s the visits became less frequent due to the security situation, and the family slowly began to think more about leaving Lebanon and moving to Israel. “My father was Zionist, and he wanted to live again in a warm and embracing Jewish Zionist community.” 

 At the end of 1993, they made the decision and K.’s family prepared for the move. As opposed to Syrian Jews, who had to escape without any belongings, Lebanese Jews left in an orderly fashion. K.’s family told their neighbors they were leaving for America, packed their house, including the furniture, called the movers and put their possessions on a ship that sailed to Cyprus, where they were greeted by Jewish Agency officials. After a few days waiting, in December 1993, they flew to Israel.

 

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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